Seeing Green: Out of the ivory silo

Opinion by Holly Moeller
Oct. 14, 2011, 11:34 a.m.

Seeing Green: Out of the ivory siloWhat does an oceanographer do, anyway? Pet sharks all day?”

I’ll always remember the haughty tone of those words, delivered in my first week of graduate school at MIT, by one of my classmates in the biology Ph.D. program. Alone, they might be funny, or at least ironic: My best friend actually does pet sharks, if by “pet” you mean “harpoon with high-tech tags to track the world’s biggest fish as they cruise through the world’s oceans.” But after more comments about how I wasn’t a “real biologist” and that ecology wasn’t a valid science, I quickly realized I was fighting an uphill battle for respect.

It’s not that my classmates were particularly unintelligent — though a few were, in this case, particularly rude. Nor did most of them truly believe I wasn’t a scientist, pursuing my work in a genuinely scientific manner. Instead, I’d simply found myself the lone tree-hugger (or, you know, phytoplankton-hugger) in a room full of the next great molecular biologists. And in a department focused on molecular biology, it was understandable that some students could be rather myopic.

In a way, graduate school selects for such laser-focus. You have to latch onto something with enough passion to pursue it for years — years when you’ll watch your peers take finance and tech jobs, rent one-bedroom walkups in Manhattan, or start families without worrying about long work hours. And once you’ve picked that something, you have to stick with it: getting a Ph.D. is as much a lesson in saying “no” to side-tracks, as it is gritting your teeth through your own thesis project.

So of course, many of us wind up thinking that what we do might just be the only thing that matters in the whole world. And then a few of us wind up saying that someone else “just” tags sharks, or “just” breeds mice — and we’re only halfway joking.

This isn’t just an ivory tower problem.

An old adage holds that “familiarity breeds contempt,” but of course ignorance breeds contempt just as effectively. When we don’t understand something, we risk either under- or over-valuing it.  Whether we err in a positive or negative direction depends on a complex set of social interactions that shape our perceptions and value systems. Because a cardiothoracic surgeon saves lives in a very tangible, direct manner, we admire his deft sutures. Yet we look down on the expert flick with which a garbage collector loads trash bags, though society’s health depends more heavily on his work.

Overall, though, it comes down to knowledge — or rather, the lack of it.

Today’s society is riddled with “information silos” — discrete pillars of specialized knowledge, localized and limited. In a complex and high-tech world, we cannot know everything, so we settle for a couple areas of expertise, and view the rest through a veil of mystery. Who knows how to grow food? (Only about 1 percent of Americans.) Who manufactures complex computer chips? (Some factory in China.) And if something breaks down, well, there’s a silo for that.

Information silos have allowed us to advance further technologically than ever. We can stand on the shoulders of giants without the weight of extraneous details. But silos are both a blessing and a curse. As any biologist will tell you, life doesn’t exist inside a vacuum. Ignore the outside world at your peril.

Silos concentrate information in the hands of a few. Advancement relies on the single-minded intensity of these experts, but the smaller their number, the more likely the information is to be lost altogether. And the higher the silo towers above its base, the less those of us peering upwards will understand of the knowledge held at its peak.

Instead, we rely on the experts. For example, it’s common practice to have a trusted mechanic look over a used car before finalizing the sale, or to have a jeweler appraise a diamond before buying the ring.

But while we seek expert opinion before risking our money, the majority of us stubbornly deny expert counsel on our planet’s risky future. While I always advocate for a healthy dose of skepticism, today there’s dramatic scientific consensus that Earth’s climate is warming because we are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Why, then, is our country still in denial?

Has the information silo grown too tall? Are our basic science educations insufficient to connect the logical dots? Or are we too scared to face the enormity of the problem? Unfortunately, there’s no time to wonder — only to begin climbing the silo (up or down, as the case may be) to meet with knowledge in the middle.

Before MIT, I lived happily sequestered in my silo. Today, I’m still convinced that ecology is my calling, and that its study is vital to our rapidly changing world. But now I can explain why. And after a semester of biochemistry lectures, and hours talking DNA and proteins with my classmates, I see the world — and my own science — fundamentally differently. It’s a change for the better.

Plus, I think Drew — one of those classmates and now a dear friend — finally believes I do more than pet sharks for a living.

Send ladders, comments and tree-hugger hatred to Holly at [email protected]. Send offers to analyze shark tag data to [email protected].

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).

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