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Understanding the environment: A systems approach
Understanding the environment: A systems approach

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1.5 'Many hands make light work'

The action learning process I've just described is not, in itself, very helpful if it is applied at only the personal level). Indeed, this has been the great tragedy of reductionist science to date, in that its rigid application, through increasing specialisation and isolation of people, has often resulted in simplistic (and sometimes incorrect) explanations of complex cause and effect relationships. Such simplistic explanations have often underplayed apparently contrasting ideas and evidence, when in fact their inclusion within a developing theory would contribute towards a more realistic and nuanced understanding. Within this course you will encounter a range of thinking traps, but probably the two most insidious are 'superstitious learning' and 'groupthink'. For example, just after the Second World War, the American psychologist Burrhus Skinner published research on pigeons demonstrating that the animals soon developed behavioural rituals before being fed – the pigeons apparently associated what were random behaviours with the appearance of food, so quickly 'learnt' that certain behaviours would 'result' in rewards. Although the research is still contested, it is a great reminder of the dangers in making simplistic associations between causes and effects in isolation from other perspectives, especially when there are a range of feedback relationships in operation and potential delays between causes and effects. Things become even more dangerous when superstitious learning is reinforced by groupthink, where individuals go along with the opinion of dominant individuals within a group – a trait we have evolved as social animals in order to maintain group cohesiveness – when, once again, appreciating a greater diversity of perspectives may provide a more comprehensive understanding of a complex situation. In this case, the problem lies in the uncritical faith in authoritative and trustworthy individuals and their simplistic associations.

One could therefore argue that one of the principal reasons for the rapid adaptability of the human species is not down to individual learning, but the ability to learn socially. As members of a social species, we can compare and contrast our learning with that of others, and do this across a range of disciplines and scales: organisational (individuals to groups to communities to cultures to humanity as a whole); over time (short- to long-term causes and effects); and over space (local to global). It is therefore imperative not to leave the 'learning' to a small subset of specialised professionals or to trust the dominant opinion, especially if these arise out of an educational system which prevents people from critically engaging with issues across a range of disciplines and scales. I would therefore strongly encourage you to work collaboratively throughout the learning experiences in this course.