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Compiled, Edited, and with Textual Commentary by Thomas G. Olsen
23rd April 2021
Book in Focus
Can We Cope with the Complexity of Reality? Why Craving Easy Answers Is at the Root of Our Problems
By Rolf Jucker
Even if you know that the lines above are of equal lengths in this Müller illusion, you will ‘see’ a shorter and a longer line. This is just one of many examples that our mind is an incredibly helpful, but also utterly unreliable tool to truly understand the world in which we live.
Have you ever double-checked whether the political positions you hold bear up to scrutiny? Have you ever dug down deep to see if the mental models which guide your perception of the world are supported by evidence or built on quicksand? Have you ever thought about the fact that the story you tell yourself, and others about yourself, and your ‘identity’ might be a naïve misconception of how you act in the world?
My new book, which has now been published in a more affordable paperback edition, takes the reader on a provocative rollercoaster ride of how human perception, memory, and cognition work, and what implications this has if we want to understand the world around us. Be prepared for a lot of un-learning and re-learning. Let me just touch on a few points to provoke you enough to read the book and make up your mind about it:
- We can only understand our world reliably and meaningfully with an evidence-based, scientific approach:
Recent experiences and a historical reflection on how reliable knowledge comes about show us that we can only generate a meaningful understanding of the world if we can reliably distinguish between fact and fake news. For this, we need verification processes that only science can offer: openness, a culture of error and reversibility in the case of new findings, verification of results by different methods, reproducibility, verification by others, and evidence.
- Never trust a single person (even if that person listens to your name)—personal experience, memory and everyday knowledge are rarely reliable and significant:
From psychology and brain research we know that our personal experience, our personal knowledge, our memory, and even what we call our autonomous, inner ‘I’ are highly unreliable, illusionary constructions of our brain. All of this is subject to a variety of perceptual distortions, psychological biases, and unreflected cultural prejudices. Only very rarely can we base reliable solutions on them. Humanity's knowledge about reality, collectively acquired over decades, is therefore always more important than our personal, inevitably distorted mental model of it, which our brain is constantly constructing. This is the reason why state-of-the-art solutions to complex problems can never be provided by individuals, but only by a team, based on the best available knowledge. As a result, we must learn to take collectively verified knowledge (on climate change, for example) seriously and to mistrust our (own) interests.
- Heart, hand and head are an illusion—intuition and emotions do not help:
Anger, consternation, and emotions do not help with long-term solutions to complex problems. Before we feel them, they are constructed by the brain from prejudices, previous experiences, cultural reaction patterns, and much more. These emotions prevent dialogue and meaningful discussions. Gut feelings and intuition make us think in black and white, are short-sighted, and lead us to insist on our biased position. There is no room for careful examination of a problem and its context. Everyday experience is naïve, and does not allow differentiated reflection or the inclusion of tried and tested, reliable knowledge.
- The arrogance of ignorance, or opinions and anecdotes are not evidence:
Contrary to the widespread opinion that it is enough to just pick one (however absurd) opinion and assume it is equally valid as any other, humanity has developed reliable processes since the Enlightenment that allow us to distinguish opinion from knowledge. Especially in the field of education, we are dependent on doing our homework and acting on the basis of evidence, not ideology or mission, if we really want to promote the transition to a sustainable world.
- Complexity does not disappear just because we act as if it were not there:
We live in an increasingly complex world. We will only be able to cope with it and master the increasingly complex challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss if we face up to this complexity. Simplifications simply don’t help. This means that we must develop a reliable immune response to simple answers or black-and-white solutions. We must therefore not only acknowledge the current state of collective knowledge in the respective area (such as what evidence-based education means), but we must also develop systemic solutions for different levels of the system and different target audiences (for example, teacher training institutions, head teachers, and teachers). The 'one-size-fits-all' guru-solution for everything no longer exists.
- Unlearning and re-learning—building up immunity against sloppy thinking and ideology:
In our inner world, we have usually made ourselves comfortable: we believe in many things without ever having double-checked whether they really make sense; on other issues, such as overpopulation, we are afraid that the discussion could become difficult, so we prefer not to touch it. However, faith and hope will never help us to meet the crucial challenges of our time. Only if we get to the bottom of them carefully and in a differentiated way can we solve them. Only the willingness described by Carl Sagan can help: we must use ‘intense scepticism’ and, at the same time, be ready for the possibility that everything is different from what we expected (‘total openness’). Successful learning means becoming immune to ideological beliefs, religious dogmas, and fake news. Today, we do know how to question them (self-)critically.
- “Enlightenment is humanity’s emergence from her self-imposed immaturity” (Immanuel Kant):
A democracy (and the self-determination of the people in a community) can only function if the people involved in this process have the skills and competences to act maturely in the spirit of Kant. Where people cling to the lips of authoritarian or religious leaders or (social) media to be told how to understand the world and what to do, this is certainly not the case. Therefore, the greatest challenge facing our education system is how to accompany children, young people, and adults into the self-determined maturity referred to by Kant.
- Only as a community are we able to survive:
The idea that we are at the same time individuals and part of society is not very well established in our society. The basic tenor is, “nobody tells me what to do”. We overlook the fact that we are always dependent on society, on the economy, and on the environment. This egocentric misconception is based on an ideological process: over the past 70 years, we have been inoculated by politics and advertising; “you alone are the architect of your own happiness”. There could not be a more dramatic misunderstanding of the entire body of available knowledge, which proves that, as human beings, we are social beings through and through.
- Let us grow up! Systemic solutions require slow thinking. Let us use it. We will reach our goal faster:
The 'génération offensée' (Caroline Fourest) is increasingly dominant both on social media and in public life. We need to get out of this mode of the two-year-old toddler who feels insulted at every opportunity and screams and lashes out in anger. Donald Trump has just spent four years showing us what destruction such instinctive behaviour can cause. We all have to learn again to think slowly and carefully, to question ourselves self-critically, to understand other positions, to come to terms with the current state of knowledge, and to get off our high horse.
- There is only one, material world and we can understand it:
The last 250 years have taught us that we can understand our world without recourse to magic, metaphysics or immaterial beings. Findings such as emergence can explain things today that we thought we would never be able to understand 50 years ago. What we need is patience and perseverance, and confidence in our ability to learn.
The book has received global recognition, with one reviewer referring to it as “remarkable” and “a must-read for any person concerned about the current challenges facing our planet and its current inhabitants.”
There is more material on the book on my website: https://rolfjucker.net/wordpress/efs-writings/, including podcasts, blogs in German and English which are suitable for use in starting classroom or online discussions about the book’s main issues, interviews, and reviews. An eBook version is available here.
Enjoy the read. I would be delighted to hear from you once you've finished reading. Whether you liked it or not, please drop me a line or two at email@example.com.
Praise for Can We Cope With the Complexity of Reality?
“The book argues that we are beset by a huge array of false news, self-illusion, echo chambers, myths and stories. Our beliefs do not map onto the actual structure of the world (reality). This makes it increasingly difficult for us to make rational, evidence based and logical decisions. This cognitive dissonance between belief-systems and rational thought and action is a major issue for education and learning for a sustainable future. The book explores how intelligence can be a tool for both propaganda and truth-seeking. A cutting-edge book which all who promote education and learning as a major tool in influencing our behaviour and actions should read.”
Dr Stephen Martin, Hon FSE, FRSB, FIEnvSci, Honorary Professor, University of Worcester; Visiting Professor in Learning for Sustainability, University of the West of England; President, Change Agents UK; WWF Fellow; Policy Advisor to the UK National Commission for UNESCO
“Rolf Jucker skilfully interweaves findings from the philosophy of science, neuroscience, systems theory and social sciences. He outlines an inspiring framework, based on democratic reflection and educational insights, on how to tackle the great challenges of the Anthropocene. I recommend Rolf Jucker's interdisciplinary approach and his plea for more rationality to all those who want to think outside the box and above all want to self-critically think about themselves: policy makers, scholars, professionals – not only in the field of sustainable development, but in any domain where complex problems have to be solved democratically and critically by people working together with people.”
Patrick Zobrist, Lecturer/Researcher, School of Social Work, Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Switzerland
“The book not only presents evidence for the causes of the ecological crisis that threatens the long-term existence of the human species, but also explores why this is the case and why the response to the climate emergency and accelerating loss of biodiversity has been so inadequate. By analysing some key issues that should concern us all, but which are often avoided because of their complexity and controversial nature, Rolf Jucker points us towards an evidenced-based position from which a more substantive response to our current predicament can emerge.”
Dr Glenn Strachan, Independent consultant in ESD; Tutor and former Course Director, Education for Sustainability Programme, London South Bank University; Chair, Shared Earth Trust.
“Rolf Jucker’s book is important as it illuminates the connection between rational thinking, learning, knowledge and action – and does not shy away from disputed and ignored topics such as religion and ending population growth. He delivers essential input for opening spaces of differentiated dialogue, which are the starting points of change that manifests itself in action”
Kathrin Schlup, Director, sanu future learning ag, Switzerland
“This book by Rolf Jucker is remarkable in that it exposes one of the central problems facing our modern societies, namely our individual as well as collective failures to critically assess information and to confront complex, problematic situations. On issues such as sustainability, climate change, overpopulation, religion or education, Rolf Jucker demonstrates that viable solutions cannot be obtained in the absence of a fact-based, informed, objective and differentiated analysis of the situation. This well-documented book shows that a differentiated analysis is not easy for any individual or group, but that the necessary effort it requires leads to inescapable, albeit sometimes provocative, conclusions. A must-read for any person concerned about the current challenges facing our planet and its current inhabitants.”
Daniel Kiper, Director, Life Science Zurich Learning Center, University of Zurich and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich
“As Donella Meadows comments in “Thinking in Systems”, there are no easy answers, no quick fix, we don’t really understand all the feedback loops and information flow in non-linear systems well enough to predict outcomes with any certainty. Think of trophic cascades, weather forecasting, nuclear fusion, COVID-19. Prepare to be surprised. Do we get to choose between Zardoz and Soylent Green or something else? What will self-organisation and emergence bring? Rolf Jucker’s timely little book might stir you up a bit.”
Henry Liebling, Retired Senior Lecturer in Education, the College of St Mark and St John’s, UK
“From climate change to education, this book offers a great introduction to topics that will only become more important in the coming years. It also serves as a great starting point for doing further research as it always points to more material on the topics it discusses. I recommended this book to a couple of my friends, and we ended up having many interesting conversations on the discussed issues, for example on overpopulation.”
Johann Braun, Student, Leipzig, Germany
Dr Rolf Jucker is currently Director of the Swiss Foundation for Nature-based Education (SILVIVA) and a learning for sustainability expert, having previously served as Director of the Swiss Foundation for Environmental Education from 2008 to 2012. Having gained an MSc in Education for Sustainability, he has worked extensively on education for a viable future and published widely on the subject. He is the author of Do We Know What We Are Doing? Reflections on Learning, Knowledge, Economics, Community and Sustainability (2014).
Can We Cope with the Complexity of Reality? Why Craving Easy Answers Is at the Root of Our Problems is available now in Hardback and Paperback formats. You can click the link here (https://www.cambridgescholars.com/product/978-1-5275-4851-0) to read more reviews, as well as the first 30 pages free-of-charge. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout for a 25% discount.