Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

May 22, 2004 The Environment Club.

Camping at Elk Neck State Park in Maryland, I asked a young man tossing a football if he could give me a hand lifting my poptop. He was a friendly fellow, and finding out that I was traveling alone he invited me over to the site where he was camping with the environment club of a local community college. They were a bounding, exuberant lot – perhaps a dozen students, two of their professors, a few children, some parents. I mentioned that I work on environment issues, and as I explained what I did – and how I live in the van – I began to feel like the interesting foreign visitor at a 19th century salon. One of the professors, Bill, was curious about my book, and when I offered to email him the first chapter so he could see if it might be useful for his classes, he laughed at himself for networking in a campground on the Chesapeake Bay. A group of students came by for a guided tour of Matilda and were duly impressed.

One girl – Courtney she said was her name – was eloquent about the impact Bill’s environmental science class had had on her. She was in the community college for two years, and like many of them she hoped to transfer to a four-year college with her associate degree. She was thinking about continuing in science, but wasn’t sure whether it was really right for her, or whether her interest had been sparked only because Bill was so inspiring a teacher. She had begun, she told me, in psychology, hoping to become a counselor of some sort. But her first psych class changed her mind. She was disturbed by the uncertainty of it all. She perceived, quite correctly, that one researcher looked at the evidence and arrived at one interpretation of human behavior, only to be debunked by another researcher, perhaps with new data, who found flaws in the argument of the first one. She expected that in the sciences it would be different, there would be one right answer explaining how the world really works, instead of competing theories and uncertainty.

Photo of the Chesapeake Bay at Elk Neck State Park © Nate Payne and reproduced with permission of the photographer.

I was reminded of the animal behavior class I took my last year in college. I realized in that class that biology was just like economics – theories developed based on the available data, new data emerging that countered the prevailing theory, new theories offered, new data, always that movement from one interpretation to the next. I remember the plaintive comment of a freshman in my section, “but which one is right?” And I remember looking at the teaching assistant as we shared a flicker of recognition that the freshman hadn’t caught on yet.

I told Courtney of that experience almost twenty-five years ago. At first she was crestfallen. She wanted to believe that there was certainty out there, that she could learn the rules of a system or a discipline and then she would know whether she was right. Hearing that there was no certainty in any academic discipline left her hanging. I thought about that for a bit, and reflected that perhaps the certainty came at a different level. It wasn’t about having the explanation that was definitively correct – it was about knowing why the available data led you to find one explanation more convincing than another. I told her about my work in Mozambique, where my job was to scope out the options and explain to the parks authorities why they might choose one strategy or another – not to tell them which strategy to choose.

She was intrigued. She said no one had ever presented “knowledge” in that way, it had not occurred to her that one never really knows what to do, we can only be comfortable that we’ve made what we consider the best judgment based on the information available to us and a clear understanding of our own priorities. She was really glad she had talked to me, she said, this was a revelation that opened up a new way of thinking about things.

I was reminded of a conversation I once had with a relative stranger, over a dozen years ago in Bamako. He was a Brit working on an agriculture project, and also involved with the Open University and helping Malians develop independent research projects for distance learning courses. At least that’s what I remember of what he was doing. I was working for a consulting firm at the time, not particularly committed to my work, with no idea of what I could do instead. I listened to him talk about the Malians’ projects, and had a revelation of the need for me to find my own project that mattered to me, not that I did because the consulting firm had a contract. I talked to him about this, and felt that I wanted him to be there to help me sort it out. He must have felt about me as I felt about Courtney – surprised and pleased for his somewhat random thoughts to have struck such a responsive chord, but certainly not aware of having done anything in particular to warrant the appreciation it generated.

It’s interesting to be on the other side of such an exchange.

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