Resources for grappling when “all perspectives seem true,” and long-established categories are crumbling
Think you have it bad trying to accurately measure and report on your company’s carbon footprint and supply chain impacts?
Perhaps you’ll feel better after hearing this cautionary tale. The journal Nature recently reported a prank played on the publishers of well-respected science journals. For reasons that aren’t completely clear, 120 completely gibberish papers made it through peer review, were published, and then withdrawn after the prank was revealed.
How on Earth could this have happened? How could such an absolutely bedrock scientific principle as peer review fail so utterly?
The answers have to do with an all-too-human reluctance to trash the work of supposed peers. Add in the biases we’re all subject to in assuming that “experts” (or at least those posing as them) know what they are talking about. You also can’t rule out simple laziness.
We’d like to add another provocative possibility to this negligence soup: that the journal editors gave a pass to the gibberish articles because, influenced by postmodernism, they assumed at some level that the authors just had a different, alternative, but legitimate view of the world.
That’s postmodernism for you.
For those former business majors who missed it in Humanities class (likely most of us), postmodernism is a school of thought that reacts against “the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality.” What a person believes about the world comes from their own personal interpretation. There are no certain and universal truths. Everything is relative. All viewpoints have inherent validity. (Think of the perception-challenging art of Warhol and Rauschenberg, and the music of Glass and Cage.)
While this may seem like a huge stretch, we think there’s real value for sustainability practitioners to consider lessons from postmodernism. Put the simplest way we can think of, acknowledging postmodernism’s influence helps us deal with nuance. Because postmodernism prioritizes skepticism and the reevaluation of assumptions, we believe it’s a rich topic that helps us acknowledge the inescapability of prejudgments and biases in our measurement frameworks as we aim for more sustainable business outcomes.
Pitfall XXI: Don’t fail to account for your audiences’ postmodern biases & “truths” and seeing things from their points of view.
Love it or hate it, postmodernist thinking — and the perspective it brings against accepted “truths” — is entrenched in our world. (Not officially, explicitly, or necessarily consciously, but it’s there.) It’s part of our hyper-connected lives, where many individuals’ experiences carry more weight than ever before. For most of history, unless you were at the very top of business, society or religious life, your experiences and opinions probably didn’t count for much outside of your inner circle.
Even just 50 years ago, much of the world had pretty much the same New York Times front page each morning. The set of facts selected and presented by a small subset of thinkers were, for the rest of us, “objective” reality. As Walter Cronkite famously signed off his newscast each evening: “And that’s the way it was.” In saying so, publically and with the weight of his “authority,” he made it true.
Today, social media offers each of us many windows on the world that reflect our individual choices and shape our experiences. Plus, we have the power to broadcast our own personal views of reality, and what things mean, to many others.
Taken to the office, this means sustainability practitioners have to grapple with bosses, colleagues, stakeholders and customers who may have very different views of what things mean, based on precisely the same data and facts you’re looking at. They probably are just as certain of their interpretation as you are of yours.
Perhaps relatedly, you may have noticed that conventional ways of categorizing things are breaking down in area after area. Things just don’t seem to stay in their proper boxes anymore. The dilemmas that come out of these shifting perspectives are right up postmodernism’s alley.
Pitfall XXII: Don’t fight most of the mushing together of conventional categories, how you choose to address them, and then how you measure the effectiveness of your actions.
A partial list of these box-rebels includes:
- Coming to grips with uncertainty, including the “Unknown unknowns” issue, and non-linearities;
- whether facts truly speak for themselves;
- the new place for morality in business decision-making;
- the power of stories; and
- the diminishing clarity between where the border of your business ends, and the larger society begins.
Luckily for us, if postmodernism contributes in some ways to the new kinds of emerging dilemmas facing sustainability practitioners, it also offers some guidance. Here are three resources: one directly about postmodernism, one that embodies it, and one from a relatively new scientific field that takes us to a similar place.
- Delve into this 2001 “Bioscience” journal called Dragnet Ecology—‘Just the Facts, Ma’am’: The Privilege of Science in a Postmodern World by T. F. H. Allen, Joseph A. Tainter, J. Chris Pires and Thomas W. Hoekstra. The authors argue that sustainability efforts that are modeled on Joe Friday’s forensic methods alone — “just the facts” — won’t succeed in a postmodern world because they lack the elements essential for managing problems within complex systems. They argue for scientists to become experts at crafting narratives — stories — as well as facts. By looking at things this way, the authors argue, scientists will be able to better advise business leaders and policy makers on complicated environmental problems.
The most basic benefit here is increasing weight for an already commonly expressed need for scientists to become better communicators. This article made the case for science communication skills back in 2001, and it’s being increasingly echoed today.
A second benefit is support for scientists who are showing a willingness to go outside of their traditional role of fact-developer, and be actual players in the policy advocacy world. This cuts against the traditional expectation that scientists do their research thing and stay out of policy/political scrums. We’re seeing increased visibility from scientists such as James Hansen (NASA & 350.org), Neil Degrasse-Tyson (“Cosmos”), and Michael E. Mann (The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars). 2. The New Journalism movement that grew out of the 1960s civil and social tumult offers notes for acknowledging nuance, or even better, grappling with it. This kind of reporting, at its best, allowed for the writer's active physical participation in the events of the story, with the benefit of generating unique insights. 3. The field of behavioral economics has clear lessons for distinguishing between how we like to think we make decisions (very rationally) versus how we really do (subject to many cognitive biases affecting actually being rational).
While these streams of thinking run (very) outside the sustainable business mainstream, we think this approach can help you with thorny challenges of moving your company further towards sustainability, and then understand the nuances of trying to measure that.
We hope they spark new perspectives on additional current, box-escaping themes such as the:
- deepening of stakeholder relations;
- the emergence, coming from a number of different spheres, of actually defending emotions in decision-making and even spirituality; and
- increasing attention to “happiness” as a way to reflect human welfare and satisfaction even within the “give-me-a-number” metrics world.
It’s important to remember that we are not advocating throwing out objectivity (or its pursuit), facts, truth, and good science. Neither are we advocating an “anything goes” world. But at the very least, just citing something as, say, objective or rational, doesn’t necessarily make it so.
A helpful tip comes from author Michael Suk-Young Chwe, who notes that, all of us, not just scientists, need to accept that full neutrality or unbiasedness is impossible. It’s a burden we shouldn’t have to bear. The trick is better self-awareness, acceptance of doubt (which science, at its best, already values), and awareness that even science is “fundamentally a human process.”
Precisely because we’re all fallible people, operating in a complex world, it ultimately works in favor of our role as sustainability problem-solver to acknowledge uncertainties in the environmental and human realms, including in how we measure things.
Maybe postmodernism isn’t so crazy after all.