On academic specialization and climate change

I have spent six years in university and taken two degrees: a B.A. with majors in International Relations and Political Science and an M.Phil in International Relations. The logical academic progression, if I were to continue, would be to do a Ph.D or D.Phil. That would take between 2+ (Oxford D.Phil) and 4+ (North American Ph.D) years, but I have my doubts about whether that would be the best use of time. The 2+ is generous for Oxford, given that my thesis was the weakest part of the work I did there. I would need a more solid research project to form the basis of a doctorate.

Doing a doctorate in something like I.R. or PoliSci would certainly involve some new learning: perhaps some more quantatative and qualitative methods, certainly more exposure to theory and a particular subject area for a dissertation. It would increase how much I know about PoliSci/I.R. compared with other people who have studied in those fields.

By contrast, spending 3-4 years studying something like engineering, law, or a pure science would certainly teach me more, relative to what I know now. It would involve whole new methodologies and areas of knowledge. By any objective measure, it would widen my knowledge enormously more than doing more work on PoliSci/I.R.

That said, academia isn’t like trivia; your ranking isn’t based on your relative level of knowledge on a broad range of subjects. Rather, the stature of students is determined by how much they know compared with their peers (and, between real academics, on the basis of publication history).

At this time, I don’t have any interest in trying to rise up in academia. It would surely be a tedious endeavour, full of weird infighting and ever-increasing specialization. My ambition, at this point, is to try to make a difference in how humanity responds to the threat of climate change.

Measured against that objective, the question ceases to be about the relative abstract knowledge value of study in different areas. To me, it seems clear that more PoliSci/I.R. work would be fairly pointless. Some sort of technical study could be useful, depending on how exactly I want to work on climate change. For instance, an engineering degree would give me a better ability to evaluate ideas about energy sources, efficiency, conservation, and so forth.

Despite that, when it comes to lack of action on climate change, I don’t think a lack of technical experts is our problem. We have the knowledge and skills to start building a low-carbon global economy. What we lack is the drive to do so. That drive is unlikely to arise out of academic study, and greater technical knowledge may not provide any insights into how to generate it. Focused on that issue, spending a few more years cloistered in school doesn’t seem like a good way to advance my objective.

Everything about climate change is steeped in uncertainty. Just as we cannot know in advance how the climate system will respond to our actions, we cannot fully anticipate how entrenched human systems will respond to any sort of effort to change them. For now, the best approach seems to be a combination of branching out (to pursue multiple strategies) and determination.

That said, if it ever seems like the world has finally gotten itself off a course towards destruction, it would be nice to go back and study something interesting for the sake of knowledge itself. It would also be around that time that I thought it was fair and potentially sensible to have children. Right now, we would be introducing them into a world fraught with such terrible risk that I question the ethics of doing so.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

25 thoughts on “On academic specialization and climate change”

  1. Learning more about how activism works would be useful. Chomsky has been making a lot of noise recently about how Turkey seems to be the only country in which the intellectual elite is engaged in consistent civil disobedience against the government – compared to here where academia mostly just justifies or ignores injustices committed by the state. While it’s probably close to impossible to do this from inside academia, the distance you have on it might make it easier for you to work on the project of radicalizing the learned masses on climate change issues.

  2. I would sort of agree with Tristan. It seems that if you opt for more education, the most useful thing for you would be studying activism or even PR — how to educate the masses. Because that’s what’s needed most. As you say the science is there; it just needs to be disseminated in a way that people will understand it, believe it and want to act on it. As to the ethics of having children, I guess you have to weigh the risks of bringing a child into an imperfect world against the benefits of producing another Milan to help fight the good fight!

  3. I think it’s pretty hard to learn about how to do activism in Universities, since the purpose of the education system seems to be to produce conformity rather than people who are powerful and independent enough to question authority. On the upside, there is tons of material outside universities to learn how to do activism.

  4. I agree that university is the wrong place to learn about activism. For one thing, the sort that happens there only tends to resonate with a small subset of the population. I am pretty politically progressive and even I cringe at the mention of Chomsky. Those ‘throw all the issues in a big bucket and yell about them’ leftists really don’t change anybody’s mind.

    One big question is who to target. Those already somewhat concerned? Those who have been misled by bad information? Swing voters? Policy-makers themselves?

  5. I agree that universities are no longer (if they ever were) a good place for activism. I used to think that teaching was where one had the most capability to produce change, but given the corporate nature of universities nowadays there seems to be almost irresistible pressure for faculty to be conformist, even in disciplines where one would expect to see critical thinking.

    I’m not sure about who one should target – in some ways we need to target everyone, so it might be a case of filling in the gaps in what is already being done, or just targeting the people you think that you personally have the best chance of communicating & engaging with.

  6. “even I cringe at the mention of Chomsky. Those ‘throw all the issues in a big bucket and yell about them’ leftists really don’t change anybody’s mind.”

    I cringe when I read the books you recommend for me (i.e. “The Bottom Billion”, “The Globalizers, etc.”) , but I don’t reject them without an argument. Also, I’ve never heard Chomsky yell about anything. If you want to avoid hypocrisy, (and you seem to value that a lot more than I do) then it seems you would be a better candidate for “take every issue seriously” leftism (which does’t mean don’t priorities, and which is only dismissively referred to as “throw everything in a bucket”).

    As for whether he’s “really changing anybody’s mind”, I think it’s absurd to say he doesn’t have an effect. He’s probably changed more people’s minds than any writer you read at Oxford, simply because his audience is so much larger. The problem is, his audience “doesn’t matter” because they are mostly outside the elite. But, that’s the problem, isn’t it – the elite! It’s the elite (and only part of them) which produce disinformation on climate change, which ignore war crimes when they are committed by Nato, etc… in other words, the hypocritical ones.

    As for “changing people’s minds”, just look at the number of people who show up at talks. Or, I suppose now, the viewcounts on youtube videos. There is a huge amount of people who are making themselves aware of political life as the media does not show them through the likes of Chomsky, Zizek, and other less charismatic figures.

    If you are looking for a growing group of potential actors, who are likely to be willing to engage in civil disobedience to stand up against the rising of the tide (and this needs to be interpreted both in terms of climate change and the erosion of democracy, because why not also be opposed to fascism?), then maybe the people with the buckets could be allies rather than subjects of ridicule.

  7. Ottawa Writers Festival this April will have a few eco-related events. Would a PhD be as much about contacts as paper? It’s always tricky to know where your life days are best applied.

  8. This whole post is about what I should do personally. I am allowed to strongly personally dislike Noam Chomsky, without reading and responding to everything he writes or says. In short, I don’t see value in his message.

    I do see value in learning engineering or atmospheric science, but the level of value may not justify the lost opportunities that would arise from spending years studying those things.

  9. “I am allowed to strongly personally dislike Noam Chomsky, without reading and responding to everything he writes or says. In short, I don’t see value in his message.”

    I’m somewhat sympathetic to this position, but it still seems wrong. On the one hand, I think you are right to imply that value is something merely seen, not the result of a logical deduction. On the other hand, insofar as we are universal beings and can have knowledge, this seeing of value has an objective side and can be publicly debated in a language shared by everyone.

    To retreat to one’s personal seeing, out of public debate – this is what Hegel calls the beautiful soul, and it’s the inactive moment of conscious which affirms everything as an object of its will (as morally right), without recognizing genuine moral conflict between itself and others.

    If think that climate change is the principle threat to humanity at present, and I think this is right, you shouldn’t merely “see it” and believe it (although, this is what probably needs to happen first in a temporal succession) – you need to also defend it in genuine moral conflict with people you disagree with. Simply dismissing anyone who has a genuine conflict with you is not a serious moral position for anyone to take. And, I’m not saying you do this in general – but you do seem to be doing it here. You are certainly not obliged to speak to everything Chomsky says or writes, but it seems foolhardy to think you can have an unsubstantiated position of rejection towards someone who is very likely the most historically important activist academic ever to be alive (this is of course arguable, but it’s probably less arguable that he’s in the top five). You engage with people you disagree with all the time, substantially deniers – and even when you’re being dismissive you do treat them as human beings, as people who could have knowledge.

    This is what my Hegel and Climate change post was largely about – the fact that someone can attain knowledge means they can (in certain situations) be culpable for not having knowledge. This applies just as much to people who disagree climate change exists, as it does to people who have different political priorities as yourself. If you think your priorities are right (and I don’t think they are wrong), you can’t just “see” that they are right, you need to engage in genuine conflict with those who think they are not right. Of course you don’t need to read everything Chomsky writes, and this is a good thing, since he’s written far too much for any sane person to read it all. But to say you can dismiss a figure without engaging with any of their work, this doesn’t seem credible. It’s not as un-credible, of course, as global warming denial – because that involves rejecting not one person’s work but a whole field of work. On the other hand, you have exactly the kind of training which should make refuting anything Chomsky says about U.S. foreign relations quite easy, compared to someone like me who has no formal training in IR and finds these issues very murky indeed. It’s not enough to say you don’t see “value in his message” (this has a weirdly theietic quality to it eh?) , you need to show in universal, public language, why there isn’t value in his message, and why other people who see value in it are mistaken somehow, and ideally, why they are mistaken and how to avoid this mistake and concentrate properly on the right values, elsewhere.

    And, I don’t actually see Chomsky as being that far from you or Hansen on Global Warming. He might not talk about it as much as you might like, but he does support the 350 movement, and he did speak as early as 2003 about some of the on the ground implications global warming will have, mostly on the poor, in the coming century.

    If you care about movement building, and I know you do, then gate-keeper figures like Chomsky and Klein are incredibly important for gaining credibility within (what there is of) the activist left. But, as with the proroguing issue, the left is not enough – the “left” has to become centre, I don’t see any other way of showing up the total insanity of the right to the mainstream. As long as the left and centre mutually dismiss each other, they effectively mutually discredit each other, and this isn’t good for anybody in either camp.

    This doesn’t mean organization isn’t impossible without support of a few deified figures. For instance, the anti-apartheid BDS movement (http://bdsmovement.net/) has been growing for 5 years with no support from Chomsky, despite what it concerns being his central issue. You might not agree with the BDS movement, but it’s hard to not see it as a model for what we need to start doing concerning coal and tar sands – there are already fits and spurts of this with the RBC boycott, and it just makes sense to me that it should be extended to all firms investing in the wrong technologies.

    Chomsky on water and conflict (2003):

    On 350:
    “The world is going to be a very hostile place for the children to come…down the road. We don’t know exactly when the tipping point will come…we have an extended responsibility for this as the [US is] the richest and most powerful country in the world…”


  10. Above all, it is the man’s style that grates at me and turns me off. It just seems so patronizing and superficial.

    It is the very opposite of authors like Richard Dawkins or Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman or Simon Singh, who give you the feeling that you are sharing in a kind of enlightening intellectual adventure with them.

  11. “it is the man’s style that grates at me and turns me off. It just seems so patronizing and superficial.”

    Come on. Seriously. We deserve better than this.

    Also, Dawkins is pretty condescending, don’t you think?

  12. Chomsky is not a musicien. In fact, whenever asked about music he gets noticeably embarrassed, since his conservative values and upbringing don’t jive with the recognized importance of genuine social movements.

  13. I obviously never claimed he was a musician – just that listening to him and reading him make me feel the way I do when exposed to art or music that I strongly dislike.

    As such, it isn’t surprising that I avoid dealing with him whenever possible. Surely, we don’t have a moral obligation to read the work of everyone that other people think is important.

  14. There is something to this. Chomsky is not an exciting speaker, the style does put one to sleep. But, the content, if true, is important – and not what one can easily hear elsewhere.

    Also, he has advantages over people like Foucault and Derrida in that his views on politics are quite straightforward and simple.

    “Surely, we don’t have a moral obligation to read the work of everyone that other people think is important.”

    You already said about the same above: ” I am allowed to strongly personally dislike Noam Chomsky, without reading and responding to everything he writes or says.”

    I responded to this extensively above.

  15. From Wvong’s disagreements with Chomsky

    “Capitalist democracy is fundamentally unjust. A just society requires revolutionary change.”

    This means hardly anything. According to Chomsky, we don’t have anything like “capitalism” or “democracy” – those are both ideological terms. It’s true that Chomsky advocates worker control of production, but this never happened in the Soviet Union, or in any other real communist states. There’s no reason to think that the state which would be adequate to human freedom is a form of a state which has already existed.

    “I haven’t given up on liberal democracy and the welfare state.”

    Neither has Chomsky. He constantly advocates reform, attempts at reform, and education. His position is not terribly different from, say Derrida in “Rogues” – we’d be a lot better off if we just held states to the ideals they use to justify themselves.

    “The key conflict of the Cold War was not between the US and the USSR, but between revolution and counterrevolution.”

    What “key” conflict is is always going to be a matter of debate – but it is obviously true that there were progressive and anti-progressive forces both in the US and the USSR. The USSR was much better at suppressing these forces, however.

    The criticism of “brainwashing” is confusing, because the critic seems to substantively agree with Chomsky on this issue.

    The points on mis-representation are not terribly strong.

    Anyway, while there are points of criticism here, there are points of substantive agreement. If the intention was to find a wholesale critique and rejection of Chomsky’s critique of the academic mainstream, this isn’t it.

  16. I was just giving you something about Chomsky to read. Personally, I don’t care to discuss the man.

  17. “Easterbrook, seeking to defend Jones and his colleagues, describes a closed culture in which the rest of the world is a tedious and incomprehensible distraction. “Scientists normally only interact with other scientists. We live rather sheltered lives … to a scientist, anyone stupid enough to try to get scientific data through repeated FOI requests quite clearly deserves our utter contempt. Jones was merely expressing (in private) a sentiment that most scientists would share – and extreme frustration with people who clearly don’t get it.”

    When I read that, I was struck by the gulf between our worlds. To those of us who clamoured for freedom of information laws in the UK, FoI requests are almost sacred. The passing of these laws was a rare democratic victory; they’re among the few means we possess of ensuring that politicians and public servants are answerable to the public. What scientists might regard as trivial and annoying, journalists and democracy campaigners see as central and irreducible. We speak in different tongues and inhabit different worlds.

    I know how it happens. Like most people with a science degree, I left university with a store of recondite knowledge that I could share with almost no one. Ill-equipped to understand any subject but my own, I felt cut off from the rest of the planet. The temptation to retreat into a safe place was almost irresistible. Only the extreme specialisation demanded by a PhD, which would have walled me in like an anchorite, dissuaded me.

  18. “The words used to describe the outcome of a PhD project -‘an original contribution to knowledge’ -may sound rather grand, but we must remember that, the work for the degree is essentially a research training process and the term ‘original contribution’ has perforce to be interpreted quite narrowly. It does not mean an enormous breakthrough which has the subject rocking on its foundations, and research students who think that it does (even if only subconsciously or in a half-formed way) will find the process pretty debilitating.

    Of course, if you are capable of a major contribution then go ahead and make it (there are still, for example, a few scientists who have an FRS but not a PhD) -but this is a strategy for getting an honorary degree, not for getting a PhD! For those not in that position- i.e. most of us -an original contribution can be rather limited in its scope and indeed should be: apply this theory in a different setting, evaluate the effects of raising the temperature, solve this puzzling oddity or review this little-known historical event.

    We find that when we make this point, some social science students who have read Kuhn’s (1970) work on ‘paradigm shifts’ in the history of natural science (science students have normally not heard of him) say rather indignantly: ‘Oh, do you mean a PhD has to be just doing normal science?’ And indeed we do mean that. Paradigm shifts are major changes in the explanatory schemes of the science, which happen only rarely when the inadequacies of the previous framework have become more and more limiting. Normal science is the ordinary research that goes on between major theoretical changes. It serves to elaborate the general explanatory paradigm used and to tease out difficulties and puzzles that are not yet sufficiently well explained. It is the basic useful activity of scientists and scholars, and PhD students should be pleased to make a contribution to it.”

  19. “I have a small business as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Virginia, which I started in 2002. I work on mostly older bikes with some “vintage” cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.

    After finishing a PhD in political philosophy at the University of Chicago 10 years ago, having already done a degree and an MA, I managed to stay on with a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at the university’s Committee on Social Thought. The academic job market was utterly bleak. In a state of professional panic, I retreated to a makeshift basement workshop where I spent the winter tearing down an old Honda motorcycle and rebuilding it. The physicality of it was a balm.

    Stumped by a starter motor that seemed fine in every way but wouldn’t work, I sought help from an independent mechanic named Fred Cousins. He checked the electrical resistance through the windings to confirm there was no short circuit or broken wire. He spun the shaft that ran through the centre of the motor, as I had. No problem: it spun freely. Then he hooked it up to a battery. It moved slightly but wouldn’t spin. He grasped the shaft delicately and tried to wiggle it from side to side. “Too much free play,” he said. He suggested that the problem was with the bushing (a thick-walled sleeve of metal) that captured the end of the shaft in the end of the cylindrical motor housing. It was worn, so it wasn’t locating the shaft precisely enough. The shaft was free to move too much side to side (perhaps a couple of hundredths of an inch), causing the outer circumference of the rotor to bind on the inner circumference of the motor housing when a current was applied.

    Fred scrounged around his shop for a Honda motor. He found one with the same bushing, then used a “blind hole bearing puller” to extract it, as well as the one in my motor. Then he gently tapped the new, or rather newer, one into place. The motor worked! Here was a scholar.

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