Systems thinking: a scientist’s opinion
Interview with Richard Fisher, senior editor at the BBC.
You’ve spent a year at MIT as a Knight Science Journalism (KSJ) fellow to research ‘short-termism’ in today’s society. What have you discovered?
As a KSJ Fellow, I set out to answer a number of questions that I believe are important for understanding short-termism in today’s societies. Firstly, I wanted to trace back in time and think about how and why short-termism emerged. I am curious about how our ancestors thought about the future, and whether it differed from our own. As human beings one of our key evolutionary adaptations is the capacity to ‘mentally time travel’ forward and backwards in time; you can picture your earliest memory and then zoom forward to a sketch of your life in decades’ time. You can even conceive of deep time: picturing both our hominid ancestors and the end of the Universe. So while we have the mental capacity to escape a short-term mindset, other cultural and psychological factors nudge us to short-sightedness. Throughout history, cultural norms have affected our view of the future: for example, in the Middle Ages, time was often viewed as cyclical, defined by the rise and fall of rulers or the changing of the seasons, but then in 1700s there was what the historian Lucien Holscher calls the “discovery of the future”. For a brief period, European intellectuals dreamed of a time centuries hence; early geologists gained a greater awareness of deep time, and writers wrote stories about the far future. That unfortunately did not continue. Fast forward to the 21st Century and you have a number of cultural pressures nudging us towards short-termism, from the focus on short-term growth in capitalism to the rise of populist politics and policies. I call these “temporal stresses”. What makes our predicament in the 21st Century particularly acute is that we face a number of problems that can only be solved with a longer-term mindset – climate change, pandemics, biodiversity collapse, antibiotic resistance, and so on.
Where does science sit in a short-term world?
In many cases, science can teach how to take a longer-term view. Many experiments or studies last decades or longer – from climate science to nuclear research – while the process of science is often a baton-passing from one generation to the next. That said, science is not immune to short-termism – it is after all a human endeavour. Many of the pressures that foster a short-term horizon can apply to the working life of a scientist, from the constant pressure to publish to a focus on applied science that has business outcomes. Targets can tend to warp behaviour. There’s a rule called ‘Goodhart’s Law’, named after the British economist Charles Goodhart, which has often been stated: “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to become a good measure.” As in any endeavour, we ought to be mindful of the metrics that we use to gauge success in science.
What change do we need in journalism to address pressing issues like climate change?
That’s a big question, and there’s no single answer. My own thoughts are that we need to recognise that many parts of the media are often structurally unprepared when they are covering climate change. It’s not as simple as an editor just popping a story into a news bulletin or onto the homepage if that programme or website is set up primarily to report the matters of the past 24 hours or so. Climate change moves more slowly, over longer term time scales, so it requires much more leadership and transformation within a media organisation than a day-to-day editorial decision can achieve – instead it requires organisations to reflect on their structural capabilities, and invest in different forms of journalism. Allowing and incentivising journalists to write stories that look into the deep past and further future, as well as working with digital product designers to come up with new ways of delivering those stories to audiences, for starters. It’s not enough anymore to say that a slow-moving story like climate change doesn’t fit the daily news agenda – that’s 20th Century thinking, and an abdication of our responsibilities as journalists.
You’ve also spent some time exploring Systems Thinking. Do you apply it? If yes, how?
The focus of my research project is about encouraging people to zoom out, and see the interconnections between things. One way I’ve been thinking about it recently is how a system can also extend temporally. Systems thinking often has a spatial or organisational aspect, but I’m curious about how and when a system can reach across time. There are myriad links between our actions today, and our impact in the future. I’ve spent this year thinking a lot about the relationship we have with future generations, and our moral obligations towards them. This is a deeply difficult question: what do we owe to strangers living in the future? It’s natural to focus on present-day problems, but there are a growing number of scholars, authors and artists who are encouraging us to think about how our actions today ripple into the lives of people tomorrow. In many ways, we are leaving behind a pretty unpleasant inheritance for our children: plastics in the ocean, emissions in the atmosphere, nuclear waste in the ground, and more. You might think of these legacies as “malignant heirlooms”. To what extent, are we morally responsible for these legacies? That’s a question I’m still wrestling with.
What skill or mindsets will be in demand in future journalism?
One thing I’ve learnt is that the skills change every year…there’s always some new way of shooting video or making social media posts. It’s impossible to predict what the next thing will be only a few years from now. I’m more interested in the skills and mindsets that endure, like tenacity, creativity, empathy, and the ability to tell a good story. The most impressive innovative journalists I know haven’t got some secret special skill – it’s more that they are prepared to change their practice, to understand what audiences want, and then put in the graft.