July 5, 2011

My own, personal Greece...

After spending a few weeks in Greece, i came back to my realities feeling a bit uneasy about the direction that my country is heading. Perhaps, I am realizing that my sense of place has shifted over the years, and that the place I used to call home for my childhood and a significant part of my adult life looks and feels not only a different place, but almost a different planet. While being in the country one gets the impression of a deep schism among, across and between social, economic and political groups and realities. Greece has transformed from a country striving towards (new) social contracts in a country where the few suppress the many. A country where the social realities of the haves overshadow the needs and rights of the have-nots. And, most importantly that the discourse has lost any sense of rationality, as it is far from being grounded in social, economic, cultural and political realities. What becomes apparent to people with basic common sense and with fundamental critical thinking skills, unfortunately eludes the masses, and even more frustratingly, it eludes completely any sense of polity, as the political elites and privileged groups seem to operate on a totally different reality than the rest of the society.

Beyond the unmistakably flawed approach to "enlightened" governance, and beyond the strive for easy media recognition, Greece's political elites have created a monstrous system of governance that more often than not harasses and frustrates the citizen, has little if any respect to social norms and institutions, both formal and informal, and corrodes away any shred of social cohesion and the social, political and governance capital which is nominally is supposingly serving. In a nutshell, Greek governance exists solely for the sake of governance, as in all fronts no other roles are served. From my perspective, a semi-outsider, I cannot but keep wondering what would be different if one day the citizens would wake up in a country without governance. Would that make a difference in their quality of lifes? Of course, let's assume for the sake of the argument that somehow the government and public employees would get their salaries, the retired would get their pensions. But, what about beyond the obvious? How exactly the governance structure in Greece help the citizen maintain, and, inconceivable improve his/her quality of life? What is the role of the government in meeting its stated role, ie, protecting its weakest citizens, providing social webs for keeping people out of poverty, ensuring equal rights and liberties, and establishing a safe social, economic, financial, natural and cultural environment where citizens can pursue their livelihoods and enjoy the fruits of their labor? I am afraid the answers to all these questions are quite dissapointing.

Another important point that I would like to raise, is the complete lack of public discourse in any meaningful shape and form. Yes, public commenting is something that the government structure seems to be adjusting to, but is it really a social discourse? What control do citizens, societies and social groups have on the decision making process, especially in the policy making process? How do citizens evaluate and check-in for actions (or inactions) by their governance and its agents, beyond judicial processes? How does the governance incorporate social, economic, environmental and cultural justice and equality? What monitoring and evaluation schemes are in place to ensure them? And how involved are the citizens, local or regional societies and social groups in structured discourses? Does participation mean participation in this country? And how the presence of power plays, imbalances and social inequalities contribute to the discourse? Once more, the potential answers to these questions, when they exist, they are extremely dissapointing.

I came back from my visit to Greece with an aftertaste of bitterness. While striving to overcome it by inducing old happy memories of a country that does not exist anymore, of a Greece with few means but with abundand social capital and a strong sense of place and community. I miss that Greece. I really do. I hope future generations would have the opportunity to experience My Greece!...

August 8, 2009

Harnessing Social Complexity: my thought process


 

I woke up very early today again. I am developing into a full-blown insomniac, but it does not seem to bother me much, as I get the chance to experience the sun rising every day, along with all the beautiful sounds of the birds as they are welcoming the new day. Some days feel better than others; today somehow I feel more cheerful than usual. It is early morning and I already finished a number of tasks set out to do for my day's worth of work.

Last night, I went through a particularly difficult thought process. Again, I found myself still wandering about the reach of our scientific understanding of complex social behaviors in real world systems and experience-rich settings. My concern is not as much as to the individual characteristics of the social system itself, or its various components, as much as its functionality in diverse and heterogeneous social, environmental, cultural, economic and geopolitical conditions and settings.

My impression is that we are good on understanding the revealed or experimentally verified systemic behavior when such complex environmental conditions are confounded or well bounded in our scientific investigations. Under such simple assumptional settings, often highly complex social patterns of systemic behavior are revealed or emerge. We, thus, often don't really know how such boundary initial or confounding conditions influence systemic behavior. It is not simply a matter of varying such conditions (e.g., sensitivity to model parameters, initial conditions, or hypothesis settings). Seemingly unrelated sets or bundles of conditions may suddenly become critical to systemic evolution, or give rise to even more complex organizational forms of social emergence. The opposite might be also true, that is that the complex interacting and interwoven sets of conditions might be causing the system to become static and trapped into relatively steady attractors.

From a scientist point of view, the key question is how do we generate a relevant level of plasticity in our understanding (and interpreting) of systemic functionality in such complex, yet realistic social settings? How can we facilitate the emergence of systemic robustness and resilience? How far do we reach in specificity of social dimensions of our models? How open or closed we frame our systemic boundaries and study of interactions?

Some of the questions above are rather technical by nature, and require experimentation, including the introduction of computational modeling and simulation approaches. Others, yet, are theoretical or methodological and require adjustments of our observational views or our tools we use to study them. In any case, my feeling is that we need to revise the ways we think, approach and study complexity of social interactions in our systems.

For now, I need to return back to these thoughts after I have revisited some of the methodological issues and complex systems approaches. I don't know exactly how a different view (under the auspices of complexity framework) can be epistemologically formulated in ways that enhance its validity. Nevertheless such views must host and embrace uniqueness and robustness in ways that promote our adequacy to avoid the shortfalls of past theoretical and methodological approaches and particularly those of the disciplinary views. Insofar, such an advancement is incomplete, at least in the level of providing a convincing confidence level in my investigation.

July 24, 2009

My process of scientific inquiry - Part 1



I find very interesting how my own personal scientific discovery process plays out. It is an exciting process, but often leads to an overwhelming or overload of thoughts racing through my mind. Often, when faced with a research problem, my main and primary concern is how to understand what my experiences, judgments and data tells me. What is the deeper story and meaning of the things I observe and experience? Is there broader principles and patterns that I can detect?

Sometimes it starts simply as an intuition. Reading few interviews, or trying to answer a simple question could trigger this intuition. The feeling that something is there, and somehow I am missing the point, is a powerful motivator. It is not unusual to find myself not been able to sleep or do anything else important without having those taunting questions tantalizing my brain. Some might think this sounds like torture, but for me, this is all about being a scientists. This often "tingling" feeling about such thoughts, serves as something of a premonition, an sign that excites scientific curiosity and can lead to discovery.

Over the course of time, I learned to be patient and embrace this process, as I know it often takes a while. Sometimes it comes and goes and if it is important, I know it will come back at a later stage, when least expected, triggered again by something seemingly irrelevant. Not always we grasp the significance of such signs (as Thomas Kuhn argues), but I also believe that if something is significant, it will be eventually emerge and be picked-up. This fuzziness or uncertainty about the value of our thought processes, when managed could serve well on allowing the time to critically reflect and bounce back and forth some ideas and thoughts.

The process, when successful, resembles pieces of a puzzle coming together. We pick up one piece, look at it, put it back in a pile, then we pick up another, go through the same process again and again, until, at some point, we pick a piece, and then we remember other pieces of the puzzle that fit together. We reach back to the pile, pick the ones that remained in our memory, and... Oh! What a magic! The pieces fit together forming a part of the picture. When this happens, try to imagine how it feels.

Scientific discovery, on the other hand, is not simply a mental competency exercise. It requires painstaking thought, experimentation, hypothesizing and testing. It also requires skills and knowledge. Not so much on the type of knowledge that is simply accumulates or serves definitional narratives, but the one that allows the scientist to deeply understand the meaning and depth of the context to which such knowledge is applicable or functional. In interdisciplinary settings, the ability to generate viable and strong connections between different knowledge domains and combine successfully skills and experience is essential.

Personally, I find that an essential scientific quality and attitude towards scientific discovery is being able to be a harsh critic of oneself. Only when we can challenge ourselves first we can have the strength and power to challenge assumptions and widely held conventions in scientific knowledge. I challenge what I know, what I see and what I understand all the time. To knowing that you simply don't know enough is a powerful tool that can aid scientific discovery. Going through mental exercises in your mind, convincing oneself that often what you see is not what you get, challenging one's assumptions, dispositions and attitudes, and recognizing and embracing the proposition that in most cases it is more likely to get it wrong that getting it right are some of my intrinsic tools that drive my scientific process and the way I function in science.

The role of maturation of such processes into one's intellectuality is critical too. As time goes by a very slow process of maturation is progressing in my mind. A scientist is not simply a professional that acquired knowledge and skills throughout his or her career. A scientist is primarily an intellectual that philosophizes about his or her scientific expertise and what his or her expertise has to contribute in transforming information into knowledge that benefits society as a whole. In another article I will expose my views regarding the distorted current practice that treats the process of acquiring a PhD as a sterile educational and skill-related professional accreditation rather than a true transformative ability that turns an inquisitive individual into a scholar and philosophy of science within an area of expertise.


March 27, 2008

Empowerment, Cognition and Learning


I read a very interesting editorial article in Science this month, written by Bruce Alberts [1]. The editorial raises attention to the science function to frame "scientific habits of mind" including skeptical attitudes and emphasis on logic and evidence. Some clear characteristics of such scientific habits of mind are honesty, creativity and openness to new ideas. It also calls for a new type of science education that aims to empower how students think and act, especially when are called to perform challenging problem-solving tasks.

Empowering students for learning is not a new idea. I would point to Bloom's taxonomical approach to learning [2]. Among other functions, Bloom's taxonomy addresses issues of quality of life [3], computer-based problem solving [4], or the empowerment of multiple intelligences [5]. The taxonomical approach to learning, dating back to the late 1950's was developed by Benjamin Bloom as a cognitive tool to boost the intellectual intelligence of the students. Over the years, methodological improvements in cognitive and educational psychology lead to a modified or revised Bloom's taxonomy of cognitive levels of learning that focuses on six sequential levels of understanding (from basic to higher levels): remembering (acquiring knowledge basis and retention), understanding (achieving a level of comprehension), applying (utilizing knowledge and comprehension to apply concepts), analyzing (focusing on analytical break-down of information), evaluating (finding the value of evidence and critical information) and creating (intellectually synthesizing and acquiring new knowledge).

When it comes to science learning, the Bloom's taxonomical approach provides a very critical understanding of scientific method as well, not only at the basic cognitive understanding of science method, but also for the processing, evaluating and synthesizing information capable of generating new ideas and thought processes at both the individual and the collective levels. Beyond learning-by-doing science, or hands-on science approaches, a number of scientific disciplines, especially the ones evolving around social sciences require the development of both analytic and cognitive skills. Social systems with all their complexity [6] cannot be directly manipulated in the same way that we perform physical science experimentation. Methodologies, theories and ideas have to be developed, tested and evolve through a heuristic or approximate level of assessment or understanding. Cognitive considerations vary from the individual cognitive level to the collective and decision making cognitive level with increasing complexity and uncertainty.

Both educational and social learning approaches can aim towards enhancing and empowering individuals for appreciating, understanding and accepting science and scientific method. Re-establishing societal confidence and trust to science requires important changes in attitudes and beliefs of individuals within the society. Today, more than ever, we need clear and concise rules that are able to distinguish science from non-science, sense from non-sense, reality from myth, facts from numerous "spins". I believe there are a lot in stake today. A look at the climate change spin and controversial debate, the so-called "creationism science" controversy or other science-religion ethics [7], showcases the need for re-establishing more rigid rules and understanding of science at the public domain.

The problems related to public understanding and accepting of science in our modern societies are certainly non-trivial and multi-dimensional. I believe, before all, they require a high level of commitment from scientists. They also require a firmer stance and attitude of science leadership toward achieving its goals. Finally, they seek new ideas and methods of addressing wider societal and learning needs that go beyond diffusion of scientific findings; they aim also to changing individual, collective and social beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.


References:

1. Alberts, B., Considering Science Education. Science, 2008. 319(5870): p. 1589.

2. Anderson, L.W., Objectives, evaluation, and the improvement of education. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 2005. 31(2-3): p. 102-113.

3. Cohen, E.H., R.A. Clifton, and L.W. Roberts, The Cognitive Domain of the Quality of Life of University Students: A Re-Analyses of an Instrument. Social Indicators Research, 2001. 53(1): p. 63-77.

4. Mayer, R.E., A taxonomy for computer-based assessment of problem solving. Computers in Human Behavior, 2002. 18(6): p. 623-632.

5. Noble, T., Integrating the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy With Multiple Intelligences: A Planning Tool for Curriculum Differentiation. Teachers College Record, 2004. 106(1): p. 193-211.

6. Boyd, R., The Puzzle of Human Sociality. Science, 2006. 314(5805): p. 1555-1556.

7. Goldston, D., The Scientist Delusion. Nature, 2008. 452: p. 17.


September 26, 2007

A random walk to scattered thoughts...

I like to think of myself as a scientist. Science is not just as my nominal profession, but also a passion and a purpose in life. As many other people in this world, I am struggling to maintain a unique identity. An identity that makes me feel comfortable in my own shoes, and give me the inspiration to struggle, to envision, to achieve.

Perhaps beyond my selfish sense of identity, I can see myself as part of my community, or perhaps, of our community. The community of global citizens. The community of people that believe that what bring us together are overwhelmingly beyond anything that take us apart. There are times that I do get a sense of "non belonging". Perhaps those times come from our primordial instinctual tendencies for departing. Departing from our everyday' realities and seek something that is equally unknown and dearest, esoteric and exoteric.

Many times, over and over again, I question my own perceptions of community. Is it a static concept? Is it an objective concept, or a subjective one? Does a "community" really exist, or is a creation of our minds? My Greek background promptly tends to warn me: don't fool yourself! Think like Aristotle: if a community exist in our minds, then it is reality. Nothing around us exist if it does not exist primarily in our brain. We don't know what we don't know!

Well, if this is true, then doesn't that mean that we might be living in a universe of numerous parallel subjective realities, often overlapping within the same physical or virtual space? Doesn't that mean that the degree to which our perceptions of community interface to each other depends on our ability to share and communicate our experiences, our visions and our interests?

Mind over matter, you might claim. I agree. In deed. Despite my plenty extra weight! And, energy over mind, I might add. Not any energy, but the one that makes our world change. The one that keeps our brains running. The one that makes our eyes glow. The one that empowers our actions. The one that fills us with despair when we cannot achieve our goals. You may want to call it spiritual, inspirational, visionary. But, for me, it is not just a mental construct or conditioning state of mind. It is also an esoteric response to our world, and to our own visions of the future. I get the same feeling of energy when I think of a new exciting idea, when I stand in the top of a tall mountain, when I stare at the sea imagining my alter ego standing on the other side of the ocean, when I reach to touch the clouds in the sky, or when I close my eyes in thinking meditation.

I have a small wooden carving sitting in front of me in my desk. I think is made in Africa from black African ebony. The sculptor carved a strange spiral complex of human figures, connected to each other, embracing each other, reaching higher and higher heights. Each human figure face is arranged to look at a different direction, so that no matter how you turn the carving, you will end up facing one of the carved wooden human figures. It is in deed a fascinating piece of art, and I find it truly inspirational. I like to think that we often are like that. We face on different directions in life. We take different paths. We never see each other in our lives, unless our realities overlap. Yet, we are connected into a single carving. We carry each other in our journeys in life. And not just the present. We are connected also to our many pasts and futures.

And together we march. Arbitrarily. Perhaps heuristically. Between harmony and disharmony. In symphony and in a-symphony. And between order and chaos....

I am turning the page for tonight....

Greetings, Kostas.