The 7 Dimensions of Climate Change: Science, Law, Money, Technology, Democracy, Culture, Behaviour

February 16, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Everybody is speaking about the link between flooding and climate change, and many are saying it is time to ‘act’ on this understanding. The trouble is, as I’ve written before, this injunction to act on climate change is often simplistic and painfully generic, which serves to dissipate political will.

With this in mind, the Guardian’s behavioural insight blog features my latest thoughts on how to improve the quality of our thinking on climate change, following up on our report at the end of last year: A New Agenda on Climate Change: Facing up to Stealth Denial and Winding Down on Fossil Fuels.

The point of this particular piece was to begin to flesh out what it might mean to think of climate change as being distinct from more general ‘environmental’ concerns, and to explain why that reframing matters. The following is an abbreviated version, so if you feel you have another click in you, please go here for the fuller version and leave comments or tweets there, but if you’re happy with ‘the gist’, read on:

“We need a form of simplicity that rejects the lazy conflation of climate change with environmentalism by presenting a more energising set of associations. … Second, the right kind of simple would offer a vision of human behaviour informed by political consciousness, so that calls for “behaviour change” connect with the deep roots of the problem in fossil fuel production, rather than a misplaced emphasis on energy efficiency…Third, the right kind of simple would promote systems thinking, such that the climate problem is not viewed as having discrete independent elements, but rather multiple inter-connected dimensions that co-exist in the same space…

1. Science matters because it is the closest thing we have to an objective reference point for debates that might otherwise lack grounding.

2. Law matters, because it acts as a powerful constraint at scale…

3. Money matters, because capitalism is the planet’s operating system, and given the time constraints, we will need to respond to the climate change problem from within the system that created it…

4. Technology matters because we need innovative forms of creating, storing and transporting energy urgently…

5. Democracy matters because it is a mechanism for making collective decisions, and climate change is the biggest collective action problem of all time

6. Culture matters because our response to climate change is informed by everything from its place in formal education to implicit consumerist values in advertising to how the media frames judgments on systemic risk as scientific “uncertainty”.

7. Behaviour matters because while our choices are shaped by the facts (science), the rules (law), the resources (money), the tools (technology), the institutions (democracy) and the ideas (culture) around us, it is ultimately what we individually and collectively choose to do (behaviour) that matters.”

I hope you can read the fuller version in the Guardian, but based on the gist here, what do you think?

Too simple? Not simple enough?


Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of RSA’s Social Brain Centre. You can follow him on Twitter here.

What’s the best age to be?

April 18, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I became 35 today, and have the cake and candles to prove it. It therefore felt particularly serendipitous to read the headline in the Guardian: Is 35 really the best age to be?

The claim is not particularly shocking, since 35 appears to offer a mixture of youth and experience. I don’t feel particularly ‘old’, but I am no longer able to call myself ‘young’ without feeling slightly self-conscious. I am not yet approaching middle age, if only because that category now seems to extend well into people’s sixties, and being ‘thirty-something’ does little to inform or inspire. I suppose I am half way to my biblical life expectancy of ‘three score year and ten’, but with fingers crossed for a cure for type-one diabetes and plenty of runs in the park, I hope to be post-biblical in my longevity.

The claim that 35 is the best age to be comes from the insurer Aviva (formerly Norwich Union). It looks like a pretext for talking about when is a good time to get insured or save, and to be honest, it does not appear to present a particularly compelling case:

“It asked more than 2,000 adults from across the age ranges what they thought the best age was to be, and the average came out as 35. While only those aged 45-54 picked that exact age, most groups chose somewhere in the 30s, except 18-24-year-olds who said 27 and those aged 65 and over who said 44.”

You don’t have to be a statistician to sense the limitations of such averaging from self-report measures, and you don’t have to have studied philosophy to wonder on what basis ‘best’ is being judged.

Moreover, previous self-report measures have also indicated that happiness throughout the lifespan is u-shaped, or as the BBC put it, smiled-shaped, and they have similar limitations, while pointing to the opposite result(!) i.e. that life in your thirties and forties is a low point in the life span. Moreover, a previous study by Relate suggests 35 is the age when your mid-life crisis has a good chance of kicking-off in earnest.

Now there’s a cheering thought…

Whatever you think of the empirical evidence(and it doesn’t impress me much) it feels like we are missing something much more fundamental. If you wait for a better life, or long for an age and lifestyle that has already passed, you are almost certain to be unhappy. It may be true that part of wellbeing consists of satisfaction about the past and hopefulness for the future, but the experience of happiness has to be savoured in the present.

The best age ‘to be’, surely, is whatever age you are now.



Racist? eu must be joking…

March 6, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

There is a well worn truism in the world of marketing: “I know half of my advertising budget is wasted, I just don’t know which half.”

There is no such doubt with a recent high-budget promotional video by the European Commission that was recently withdrawn, available in today’s guardian.

To start with perhaps the only positive feature, I liked the way the lady in yellow representing Europe morphed into one of the stars of the EU flag…there might be a way to rescue some similar device to make the case that we are stronger together, better with more etc…Maybe.

But that concluding trope came at the cost of a shockingly insensitive set of implicit messages. A white woman, dressed in yellow(confusingly, it looked like a reference to the American film, ‘Kill Bill‘) is threatened by three very ‘other’-looking men from China, India and Brazil…all of whom look more or less menacing. She represents Europe (White) against the threat from major world players (non-white) and she defends herself by multiplying herself (several White) such that the three non-white characters are ‘tamed’ into submission. They all sit down, but clearly on the terms of the white majority….

I accept that there are other ways of reading the messages of the video, and I am sure there was no intention to be ‘racist’. However, the most pervasive and insidious forms of racism are often subtle in that way. They are about acting on unchallenged assumptions and stereotypes, and perpetuating them as if they are innocent and unproblematic.

Our emphasis on social brain is about acknowledging that pro-social behaviour should be normal(the accepted norm) and natural(arising from our natures) rather than being viewed as a form of deviance from the utility-maximising individualistic model that is often assumed. However, such pro-social behaviour is always relative to our perception of in-groups and out-groups.

‘Social’ is not good in itself. It is not an honorific term, but a descriptive one, and we need to expand and complexify its range of reference. In this video, by contrast, the expanding European in-group to whom we supposedly belong is narrowed and simplified. The resulting implicit message is in terribly bad taste and I am glad the video has been pulled.


Social Norms(1): Breastfeeding in Public

February 22, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

I was slightly shocked to learn that Facebook have banned photographs of women breastfeeding. I know it can’t be easy controlling 845 million users, but this particular decision strikes me as wrong on a number of levels.

The point is not just that we are all naked under our clothes, though we are, but that something so natural, nurturing and human could be deemed…anti-social?

I know some body parts are easier on the eye than others, and of course we may not all be ready to parade on nudist beaches, but can anybody really object to a mother feeding her baby?

Let’s try to be balanced:

On the one hand you have the person offended, with what looks to me like self-centred squeamishness and misplaced prudishness. To be fair, however, perhaps this could be framed as cultural sensibility and an appropriate grasp of social mores.

On the other hand you have what looks to me like a primal bond, a reciprocal physiological urge, a symbiosis, a live giving force….but which, I suppose, could be viewed as a personal preference that can be enacted in private, and is both a choice to do, and when to do…

But hang on! That’s not the case at all. I don’t think anybody can argue it’s wrong to choose to breastfeed, nor that those who breastfeed shouldn’t be out in public. So what it comes down to is that when the time comes (and mothers and babies feel that intensely, viscerally, audibly) some believe you should find a way of doing it in…private?…even when you’re in a public place?

Sometimes the cultural does trump the natural, and it is often good that it does, but these particular cultural norms feel patriarchal and, if I am honest, slightly pathetic.

So maybe a weaker version of the argument is that you can do it in public, but please just cover up as much as possible…because, you know…some prefer not to see that sort of thing…

Should you have to hide in that way? Why should the preferences and conveniences of the person who looks or sees take preference over the conveniences of the two people for whom this event is utterly natural and normal….who should get to say which social norms are most pertinent in such contexts? If in doubt, surely it should be those who would be put out at a more tangible level- in this case the physical needs of mother and child appear to matter more than the visual preferences of somebody exogenous to that intimate relationship.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more screwed up it seems. The fact that breasts in general are deemed to be salacious is bizarre enough – how did it get that way?- but the fact that using them for their main purpose might be deemed, what, inappropriate?…that’s extraordinary.

So my view at the moment is roughly as follows: even though I concede that looking at such photos on Facebook, or seeing a mother bring out her baby’s milk without any embellishments, for instance in a cafe, might make some people somewhat uncomfortable, I also think that such discomfort reveals a level of personal and cultural immaturity. It is therefore up to those people and the culture of which they are part to change their ways, not the mother and baby, who should be allowed to carry on in peace.


If you focus on the average, you miss the majority

November 14, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I picked a copy of the Guardian out of a (relatively clean) bin on Saturday, and immediately congratulated myself on the discovery. The highlight was the science column by Alok Jha which gives some mathematical insight into the ‘We are the 99%’ mantra of the Occupy movement.

The vast inequality of wealth is related to broader natural patterns, described as power laws. Power laws have been simplified by trainers and consultants and turned into the so-called ’80/20 rule’ which looks less and less like a rule the more you think about it, and more like a rough and ready heuristic to explain something much more complex and important, which is what it is.

Jha writes: “The maths underlying the 80/20 rule, known as the power law distribution, is found in many natural systems over which no single human has much influence. Its concentration of the extremes seems built into the fabric of complex systems that depend on numerous factors that continually change over time.

The simplest version says that 80% of your company sales will come from 20% of your customers; that 80% of the world’s internet traffic will go to 20% of the websites; 80% of the film industry’s money gets made by 20% of its movies; 80% of the usage of the English language involves just 20% of its words. You get the picture.”

I could dwell on this for hours, but need to get back to serious work. Suffice to say that power laws are important correctives to the human intuitions on what is ‘natural’.

As Jha puts it: “The average height of the people in a room (following the normal distribution) might tell you a lot about the spread heights of people in that room, but the average wealth of a country’s citizens (which follows a power law distribution) tells you little or nothing about how rich or poor most people are.”

New Atheism(1): Quotes and Links

September 28, 2010 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Our recent RSA event: After New Atheism: Where now for the God debate? was previewed in the Guardian, and no less than Mr New Atheism, Richard Dawkins, commented on it:

“What is encouraging about this article is the dusty response it is getting from commenters on the Guardian website. Great numbers of them, it seems, are as bored with “I’m an atheist buttery” as I am. I think we are starting to see a genuine change. A year ago, a piece like Caspar’s would have been followed by a baying chorus of but-heads in full cry. I think a tide is turning and significant numbers of people are seeing through the ill-informed “New atheists are shrill meanies” mantra. Richard”

The event was an attempt to move the terms of the debate away from the black and white of emancipating scientists versus deluded monotheists, and recognising the abundant and far more interesting shades of grey in between. Did it succeed?

Mark Vernon, who is invariably trenchant on such matters, and should perhaps have been on the panel, gave a typcally lucid overview of the content of the event, but felt that it failed to move the debate on significantly.

Caspar Melville wrote an extended piece on the event at The New Humanist where he distances himself from Richard Dawkins, and pens the beautiful line:

“The task of thinking is to live with doubt in the service of understanding, rather than living with certainty in the preservation of ignorance.”

"The task of thinking is to live with doubt in the service of understanding, rather than living with certainty in the preservation of ignorance." -Caspar Melville

I hope to come back to the issue of finding the ‘transcendent moment’ in the debate, where both sides (part of the problem might be that there are not really two sides at all, but several, and some sort of variegated spectrum of degrees and kinds of belief and disbelief, experience and inexperience) agree about what they disagree about. In this case, it is fairly clear to me that there are disagreements at the level of ontology(what kinds of things there can be) and epistemology(what it means to know something) but that is for another day.

For now, my favourite quotes from live scribbles at the event, which means they should not be taken as verbatim!

Marilynn Robinson:

(What we need is…)”A democracy of ontology in which we concede the mystery of everything we encounter.”

“New Atheism does not acknowledge the centrality of human consciousness”

“Nothing is more sacred than the fact that these kinds of conversations continue to be meaningful”

Jonathan Ree:

‘Parascience’(quoting from Marilynn Lee): “Stories that scientists tell themselves to keep morale high”

(Dislikes) “Implicit dualism- there is science and there is ignorance and no third option”

“New atheism is not a new phrase- goes back to 1690s!” (makes reference to Spinoza)

“There is irreligious experience and religious inexperience!”

R Scruton:

Dawkins as Liberator? (with reference to The God Delusion)

“The only message that sells books in millions: ‘We are setting you free’”

“Sex used to be the primary revalation of the sacred in people’s lives.”

“We are not just objects, but subjects in relation to each other- a revalation we experience in communities.”

(Reference to Wittgenstein) “The limits of reason are not the limits of the world.”

From Questions:


“Controversy is good if bound by rigour on both sides of the debate.”

RS: As Tocqueville argued: “Revolutions liberate. But you can only liberate people from something that is dying.”

MR: “The word rationality bothers me because it is often used by people who think they are more reasonable than they are.”

JR: “Believe what you believe, but recognise that you won’t believe it forever.”

RS:   “Yes reason is all we have, but the fetishisation of science is not rationale…Take Marxism… 70 million people had to die before this was acknowledged.”

RS: “Humanism discredits itself if it doesn’t recognise the deep need for transcendence.”

JR: ” It’s important not to be frightened on either side of the debate…How can we avoid winning arguments in advance by insisting on only one language form?” e.g. “God is being itself”

RS: “People need a sense of foundation…” (it occurred to me that many strains of Buddhism think differently, that the grasping after foundations may be why/how we perpetuate craving)

JR: “The problem is absolutism- when certain things are non-negotiable…”not because there is no such thing as absolute truth, but because you don’t know it until you’ve found it.”

JR: “The main danger is getting defensive, both sides get worse.”

RS: “Science proposes something and then does everything it can to disprove it. Religion is not like that. It proposes something and does everything it can to keep it from being disproved.”

RS: “Religion is vulnerable because collapse of belief threatens to fracture community.”