Posted on August 3, 2009
Another interesting note of argument to the growing chorus of voices on the organics and health issue coming from New Scientist magazine writer Jim Giles. In his article the quote I like most is this one: “It’s not about whether organic food is good or a sham,” says Jules Pretty, an agricultural scientist at the University of Essex in Colchester, UK. “That’s the wrong question. We should be asking how we can make all of agriculture more sustainable.”
Asking the right question is an important thing to stop and consider. So often the debates in science go off into different directions without stopping to ask whether the science is answering the right (or the most important) question. This makes me think back to the presidential address by Pat O’Neill at the Canadian Psychological Association’s annual meeting a few years ago. Pat is a community psychologist and someone who’s work I’ve long admired. For those not familiar with the field, community psychology was formed largely out of the frustration of psychologists working in clinical settings who were trying to ‘treat’ psychological problems at an individual level when the problems were less about the individual, but much more about the environment that they live in. This is what we often refer to as the social determinants of health (and wellbeing). For community psychologists, asking whether or not a person had the resources to cope with the problems was the wrong (or less productive) question to ask. Why were these problems there in the first place? What was their causes? And how could psychological knowledge contribute to alleviating those problems and changing the systems that sustain them?
Anyway, what Pat argued in his presidential address is for some re-consideration of the questions that psychologists ask. He argued (quite well) that much of the knowledge we have is constrained by the questions we’ve asked. One of the reasons we don’t have the data to address the big problems is that we haven’t asked the questions (in research terms) that address these problems.
Asking whether organics is equivalent to conventional food is a worthy question from a scientific standpoint and from a nutritional science perspective. But whether that is the question that we ought to base our food choices and food policy on is quite another.
Posted on July 30, 2009
Last night I attended the closing session of the 27th annual Systems Dynamics Society conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico featuring organizational change leader Peter Senge. Although I had planned to go to the talk originally, I was getting a little drained from all the learning and non-stop activity since arriving on Saturday and thought I’d go to Santa Fe for the day. Santa Fe is beautiful and has more art galleries than any city in the U.S. (so I am told) and is also the home of the world’s premiere think tank on complexity science, the Santa Fe Institute.
However, ‘fate intervened’ and every single car was rented in the city. We also got a wicked thunderstorm in the afternoon. Somehow, things worked out to keep me in town and I am so glad I was here. The talk — a conversation really — was truly inspiring. It wasn’t because of any particular oratory that Peter or the other conversants delivered or its brilliance in delivery (although it was enjoyable to be a part of). It was how it tapped into what I might call the soul of systems thinking and modeling. Systems dynamics modeling is a pretty esoteric field to those not familiar with it. Few people jump up and down at the thought of a model being created. It feels academic, perhaps because it sometimes is.
Yet, they offer us a powerful way to converse, particularly when they are developed in a participatory way. They provide a means to help people see the bigger picture and collaborate on some of the big problems in life, the problems that we NEED to work on if our species is to survive and indeed, if many of the other species on the planet will survive. Climate change was indeed one of the big issues under discussion, not only because it is something that systems dynamics is actively involved in, but because it is one of the grand challenges that we as a society need to bring systems science to so desperately.
The bottom line is that we need to create the space to reflect in our work. That’s what I hoped this blog would achieve for me. But its something we don’t do much of, and for the young professors and students in the audience there was some real concern about how to do this when it is so rarely valued by our environments, yet ironically is one of the tools that creates more value in our work than anything.
It was a special evening and I came away with some wonderful quotes that I scribbled in my notebook that I wanted to share:
“You only have so much time on this earth. Why would you spend your days doing anything but the most important thing you can do?” — Jay Forrester
“Climate change is a symptom; how we live is the problem. If want change, we need to focus on the problem” – Peter Senge
” The gift of climate change is that we all have to work together, otherwise it is unsolvable” — Peter Senge
“It is only through reflection that we escape our history”
Indeed, some words to reflect upon.
Posted on July 29, 2009
This week the widely-cited peer-reviewed journal, Health Affairs, published a paper looking at the link between obesity and the costs to the U.S. health system. The paper, based on research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, suggests that obesity could cost the system close to $150 billion dollars in the coming years if not put in check. Obesity is a fascinating area of study for many reasons and one of them is that it elicits such visceral reactions from different groups. Like tobacco, there are sides that are considered to be ‘good’ (public health) and ‘bad’ (fast food industry) by some.
But unlike tobacco, which has a clear industry that produces its product behind it, obesity is not as clear cut. As NYU professor of public health and nutrition and well-known author Marion Nestle writes, there are other groups that are challenging the CDC data. In her recent blog post, Nestle points to groups like the American Council on Science and Health that have come out strongly against data linking obesity and health problems. Nestle raises the question about where their funding comes from. Just like tobacco has a lot of groups that it sponsors to lobby and support on behalf of policies that are friendly to it – including funding “science” to support claims.
I am not an obesity expert, but I do an increasingly large amount of my work within the food system and bring over a decade of experience in tobacco control. What I see between the two areas is looking a lot alike.
If these numbers are correct, it is most likely another sign that a major campaign is about to be declared on obsesity, just like it was with tobacco. If so (and there is lots to suggest that it is already underway), it will be interesting to see if we get the same patterns of action that we had in tobacco like:
1. Faux science groups funded by those that create the very products under scrutiny claiming that the current research is flawed;
2. On the other side, an ‘obesity’ industry that becomes empowered but also resistant to new perspectives;
3. Stigmatization of those that are obese;
4. Major systems change in the way products are regulated
These are just some of the possible options. But I think that there may be some interesting parallels to note as this moves forward.
Censemaking is intended to serve as a creative outlet to express ideas about Complexity science, E-health, Networks, Systems thinking, and Evaluation (CENSE — get it?). This is the environment that I have chosen to immerse myself in as a person and a professional. Now certainly, the idea of living systems might make sense to some — but evaluation? e-Health? Why are they connected? Well, it has a lot to do with my vocation: a professor of public health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. Through a long and windy road I’ve come to believe that we’re at a nexus of unprecedented opportunity and danger and that the linear mindset that has served us for so long and brought us the technological and social marvels we have today is pushing up against a wall. Climate change, chronic and infectious diseases, food security, mass migration, and globalization are just some of the ‘wicked problems’ that will only be solved by many people working together, self-organizing, and being creative. Indeed, the ‘C’ in CENSE is really a placeholder for a lot of things: creativity, collaboration, complexity, convergence, conservation… All of these things are essential for us to continue to have the life of relative comfort that comes from the plenty that those of us in places like Canada have come to enjoy.
But not all of us — even in Canada — are so well off. It’s easy to put a head in the sand and ignore the realities experienced by our First Nations peoples, new immigrants, and those billions who live on less than $2 a day worldwide. It is easy to forget that while I have access to an abundance of fresh water, clean air, medical care, safe and abundant food supplies, and educational opportunities, I am in the minority. I have been given a lot of opportunity to do well, and I’ve created a lot of opportunities too. The point of this blog isn’t to talk about how good or bad things are, but to imagine how we can collectively create a glocal (global+local) system of support and care that enables the world to have opportunities like I’ve had in a manner that is sustainable and just.
A tall order? Yes. But why live a life nestled on the ground when you can also reach for the stars?
Blogging is tough. I am an avid microblogger on Twitter (@cdnorman), but a long form blog is something that I’ve been wanting to commit to for some time. After much debate about what platform to use, I’ve decided to start Censemaking here, now and hopefully for the years to come. Watch this space for ideas, insights, ramblings and musings about the issues that intertwine to reflect the reality of my personal and professional life. You’ll see a lot on technology — information tools to communicate, share and collaborate. There will also be a lot on public engagement and learning. I am an educator, so you’ll see some things on that. I’m also a foodie and believe that transforming our food system — from its production to its packaging and transportation to its marketing, consumption and through to its disposal — is the issue that will define the 21st century (along with water, which I relate to it). So you’ll see a lot on that. And, I’m a public health professor, so there will be musings on topics like disease, health promotion, tobacco control, obesity and many other things that are relevant to the health of populations.
I hope that whoever you are, you enjoy my blog.