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Faculty Forum Papers

ON STRAINING OUT GNATS AND SWALLOWING CAMELS
by
David A. Bella, Emeritus Professor
Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering
Oregon State University

May 2009

In her keynote address at University Day 2008, Dr. Carol Geary Schneider emphasized the importance of preparing students to address “the big picture”. I agree! It appeared that everyone else agreed. But, I have serious doubts that we are capable of doing this. Stated bluntly, we’re in serious denial. The administrative structure and common practices of academic disciplines pose formidable barriers to the kind of discourse that “big pictures” demand. It is delusional to think that we are preparing students to do what we ourselves cannot or will not do. Yes, there are exceptions, but we should not use these exceptions as excuses to avoid the concerns that I raise herein. Yes, there is much outstanding work done in many disciplines and multidisciplinary teams. But, as I intend to explain below, it is a serious mistake to presume that excellent parts add up to big pictures that make sense.

Two Challenges
          First, the most radical intellectual challenge in my lifetime (I was born in 1938) arose in fields such as nonlinear dynamics and complexity theory.  Those who are mathematically challenged should not shy away because much from these discoveries: 1) can be translated into ordinary language, 2) challenge common practices in academia, and 3) open up new ways to see the big picture for real world problems.  These discoveries warn us that our nonlinear world is very different from the illusions that have arisen from our linear presumptions.  The deceptively simple but radical claim is that the character of wholes cannot be reduced to the character of their parts (or their sums, averages, sequences, etc.).  This claim challenges linear presumptions embedded in our language, institutions, and practices.
          University education is divided into parts, both administratively (departments) and intellectually (disciplines).  While we point to the excellence of these parts and play lip service to interdisciplinary efforts (and occasionally attempt them), we don’t get the big pictures, much less teach them.  Wholes must be addressed as wholes, an effort that is so radically different from our established practices that we are likely to avoid or reject such efforts as strange, weird, and not measuring up to our established standards of academic discipline.
          If the world were linear, we could reason that if each part is done well, the whole is done well, a form of reasoning employed in assessments of administrators, faculty, and students (e.g., the GPA).  And, if the world were linear, I could be a great musician; on our grand piano I could play grand notes. But, alas, when I add up my grand notes, I get terrible noise, not music!  Clearly, the character of the whole cannot be reduced to the character of the parts!  Likewise, the excellent parts that we play in the university (these are important) add up to babble that even we don’t understand when applied to real world “big pictures.”  Thus, we seldom discuss emergent (self-organizing and not reducible to parts) wholes among ourselves, perhaps assuming that some other field of expertise should address such matters.  We presume that if we all do our parts well, the problems will be addressed.  When the problems are not addressed, we can blame “them” (somebody else) and return to doing our part.  We act out linear presumptions.  Yes, and if the world were linear, a good joke could be reduced to the sum of funny words.
          Linear presumptions do serve most of us well within our own fields.  In a similar manner, we can assume a flat earth when making a map of a small field.  Plane surveying – assuming a flat earth – works well if we don’t look too far.  As with flat earth assumptions, linear presumptions do not work for big pictures.
          My second challenge is related.  We have failed to address, much less grasp and teach, the seductiveness and limitations of modern technology as practiced on large scales.  The Iraq war, conducted with impressive efficiency, and the disastrous postwar conditions that followed are largely examples of a reoccurring problem, the temptation of “the technological fix.”  Problems are defined to fit technological solutions.  Problems that do not fit are neglected.
          While we have been catching up on our e-mail, the rapidly expanding capabilities of technology have extended the scale of real world problems far beyond the “flat earth” views of our disciplines.  My parents and I both obtained home mortgages.  But, in our world of technology enabled mortgage backed securities, credit default swaps and many strange forms of derivatives, home mortgages now threaten to trigger a global financial meltdown.  This risk arose largely through the playing of sophisticated and high stakes computer games where the only score that really mattered was money gained.  The players were extremely bright and highly educated.  They included small armies of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists.  Theoretical physicists played prominent roles.  What were they doing?  They were applying highly sophisticated computer models for “risk management.”  And the outcome?  We now face the risk that the global economy could collapse and we will be required to shell out a trillion or more dollars in an attempt to hopefully prevent this from happening.  Clearly, with respect to intelligence, “smarts,” the whole was considerably less than the sum of the parts.  In our high tech love affair, we seemed to have missed something.
          It would appear that they (the really smart people who managed risks) and we (the people who taught them and invested our savings) failed to get the big picture.  The only real assets that some financial geniuses may have left are the advanced computers that they used for risk management.  Clearly, there are lessons that should be learned.

Lessons Learned
          The U.S. military has a “lessons learned” tradition that seeks to learn from failures so that the same mistakes do not reoccur.  Unfortunately, the university does not have a “lessons learned” tradition when it comes to complex problems, even when huge failures arise from graduates applying expertise gained through higher education.  What nontrivial lessons did we learn from the Enron failure?
          But, you might reply, the skills and knowledge taught at universities can be applied to learn what went wrong in many failures.  I agree!  Technical experts can identify design errors.  Financial experts can identify accounting errors.  Journalists and historians can provide comprehensive accounts that reveal in detail what occurred.  Such learning requires precise investigations that draw upon the appropriate professional skills (accounting, as an example).  As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.”
          Through such learning, we find that complex failures involve countless actions ranging from personal and petty to highly technical and sophisticated.  Those who look toward the personal end of the spectrum ask, “Who should we blame?”  In contrast, experts look toward the technical end and ask, “What mistakes were made?”  But, regardless of how we look at this spectrum of details, the fact is:  this particular collection of details will never repeat.  When examining details, every complex failure is seen as unique.  The particular combinations of acts and events will never again arise.  If “lessons learned” strives to not repeat the “same” mistakes, the word “same” must refer to something very different than particular parts.  It would appear that the “devil” may not be in the details but may instead be found in the emergent wholes that have a “devilish” way of coming back to haunt us, even after we’ve fixed the parts.
          Learning about complex problems and failures does involve careful and detailed studies of the particular events that occurred.  But, “lessons learned” – to not repeat the same mistakes – demands a very different kind of discipline.  It is here that the radical claim of nonlinearity has something to offer:  the character of the whole cannot be reduced to the parts (or their sums, sequences, etc.).  The collection of particular actions will never be repeated, but the context (emergent pattern) within which they arose may reemerge.  Thus, while particular actions may be very different, the same or similar context – larger pattern of self-reinforcing behaviors – might indeed arise again.
As technological advances expand the scale of such patterns, the reemergence of similar patterns can produce greater disasters.  Lessons not learned from the Enron collapse helped to enable the larger economic meltdown we are now experiencing.  If, however, emergent patterns are uncovered and sketched in recognizable form, then lessons could be learned.  That is, given unique and unforeseen events and people (the parts) we and our students might say in the future:

“Something is wrong here!  I recognize this.  The same thing occurred before and the consequences were disastrous.  We need to take steps to avoid the same mistakes.  We cannot simply go along!”

The word “same” refers to whole patterns that are self organizing, emergent forms of order in human affairs that require neither intent nor deliberate design.
          But, to teach such lessons, we ourselves must first practice disciplined forms of “lessons learned” that radically depart from the established practices of academic disciplines and the compartmentalization of our administrative structures.  We must uncover and expose the character of the emergent patterns from which failures arise on scales far beyond mere broken parts or individual wrong doings.  We must discover self-reinforcing patterns as coherent wholes in themselves.  We must clarify the character of such patterns so that we and our students – from many disciplines – can recognize when these patterns reemerge in similar forms, even as the details are radically different.  “Lessons learned” involves recognizing similarities in wholes despite differences in parts.  It is not enough to explain in detail what went wrong or who to blame.  We must clarify the character of the contexts (emergent wholes, large scale self-reinforcing patterns) within which bright, educated, and competent people failed to notice troubling matters until it was too late.

The “Show Us” Challenge
          At this point in my rambling (or before), my students would say “give us an example.”  This is a reasonable challenge:  to present, in a way that they can grasp, a nontrivial example from the real world.  It’s a challenge to “do it,” not merely “talk about doing it.”  “Give us your best shot.”  “Show us.”  When I take up the challenge, discourse shifts.  Abstract notions within my own academic babble must now be clearly applied to some real (not hypothetical) problem.  Students from different disciplines often know more about the parts than I do.  They test me!  The demand is placed upon me to demonstrate how abstract notions (e.g., emergent wholes) can be clearly expressed in ways that help students to understand (rather than confuse) matters of importance in the real world.
          I am forced to respond to their questions.  “What do you mean?”  “Why did you do this?”  Like David facing Goliath, I am forced to take off my academic armor.  I cannot protect myself (as a competent authority) by citing references (that students have not read) or employing jargon (that students don’t understand).  “Show us” they insist.  I am forced to use ordinary language, clear sketches, and familiar examples to clarify matters that even I find to be difficult and strange.
          In my efforts to grasp and explain, I expose my own ignorance within this messy world.  I struggle.  I ask for help.  The practice of “lessons learned” demands this.  Through example, students learn that it is both honest and enlightening to say, “I don’t know, let us see if we can make some sense of this.”  And through such vulnerable and challenging efforts, we may indeed gain clarity on matters of importance that experts failed to grasp.
          When we professors give difficult reading assignments to students, present lectures (expecting students to take notes), test students on their grasp of what we have covered, and then   grade them, we imply that we really do know something of relevance to the real world.  Thus, when problems become apparent in the real world, it is not unreasonable for students to issue a “show us” challenge.  If all we give them is more of the same – “read this book, study this author” – then students have good reasons to suspect that, while we may know a great deal about our own discipline (literature, jargon, theories, etc.), we really do not know how to give clear pictures of real world problems.  Perhaps we’re bluffing.  Students learn to play the game. In their words, they “plug and chug,” “cram and flush,” “regurgitate back on tests,” “jump through the hoops,” “get the grade,” and then say “thank God I’m through with that.”  Of course, there are exceptions, even heroic exceptions!  But, when considering the entire educational experience, it appears that our ability to clarify (rather than confuse or trivialize) big pictures is overrated and self-delusionary. 
          Our ability to educate competent experts in many fields (where we ourselves excel) stands in stark contrast to our ability to clarify wholes (contexts, systems, patterns) through which expert-driven problems and catastrophes emerge.  Linear presumptions allow us to set aside such troubling matters.  Our students learn from us.  Thus, when troubling matters are set aside and when grave dangers emerge from the actions of educated people, we educators can be seen as enablers.  When real world problems become apparent and we merely blame others, then we ourselves fail the “lessons learned” challenge.
          Perhaps we should take seriously an ancient challenge that some of you might recognize: “You blind guides!  You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”  It’s not that specialized expertise (“straining out gnats”) is wrong.  But, it does appear that we do overlook and conform to larger wholes (“swallow a camel”).  And, clearly, a camel is not the sum of a lot of gnats (the world is nonlinear).
          Given the challenges that I myself have made in this forum paper, it is quite reasonable to say to me “show us,” “give us an example.”  As an anticipatory – perhaps preemptive – response, I’ve made a preface and a paper available at http://sites.google.com/site/swallowedcamels.  This paper:

  1. examines the emergence of evil in our modern world, (hint: the people involved behave much as we do),

  2. employs an ancient prayer (many of you will recognize it) as an intellectual discipline,

  3. claims that competence can and often does become “demonic,”

  4. supports the claim of others (cited in the paper) that the notion of “faith” understood as stubborn “belief” is a modern heresy, and

  5. contains “lessons learned” that do apply to higher education.

This paper, “Emergence and Evil,” was peer reviewed and published in a secular journal, Emergence Complexity and Organization.  It has also been student tested as a “show us” exercise. A student has set up a blog site; you can post comments at http://transcendinglessonslearned.blogspot.com/.  I will be available to discuss – with students, faculty, and anyone else – this paper (“Emergence and Evil”), and the more general concerns raised in this Faculty Forum.  Finally, I will share my own insights and seek help from others on “lessons learned” from the U.S. Iraq intelligence failures and our ongoing economic meltdown.

Opinions expressed by authors of Faculty Forum articles are not necessarily those of Oregon State University, the OSU Faculty or Faculty Senate.