Where Ideas Originate; What Makes Some Useful? : Reflections Pt 12

I have been asked why I have so many novel, yet useful ideas, ones that eventually move to some kind of fruition, testing and, usually, after a very long time, acceptance.  I do not really know, so what I write here is a guess.

I am prodigiously curious about nature, and that triggers initial ideas.   I am also terribly persistent and stubborn about developing and testing an idea that grabs me; at those times I am totally and narrowly focused, driven by the potential. That is what eventually makes an idea useful.  So I conclude that nature creates the idea; stubbornness makes it useful!  But I have had to learn how to see nature.  It is curiosity, anecdote, funny correlations, jokes and metaphors that have done that.

I enjoy communicating the excitement and the evolving stages of these ideas to others.  And I like to discuss all this in classes with students, involving them directly in whatever research is most topical.   That leads me to careful mentoring of some younger colleagues whose talents stand out.  Earlier I mentioned a number of them.

I am delighted if others become interested and propose extensions or alternative explanations.  I get profoundly upset if, at such times, someone says these suites of nascent ideas, or any one idea is wrong and that projects based on them should stop. I have got into big arguments with distinguished scholars over that one!  In contrast, I see them as rich ways to explore the unknown; I see them as rich ways to develop friendships that endure.

Frances Westley once pointed out to me the three principal types of scientist she sees.  Those are consolidators, technical talents, and artists. Consolidators accumulate and solidify advances and are deeply skeptical of ill formed and initial, hesitant steps. That can have great value at stages in a scientific cycle when rigorous efforts to establish the strength and value of an idea is central.

In contrast, I love those initial hesitant steps and like to see clusters of them. That is the kind of thing needed at the beginning of a cycle of scientific enquiry or even just before that. Such nascent, partially stumbling ideas, are the largely hidden source for the engine that eventually generates change in science. So I am not a particularly good consolidator.

I also am not a preeminently good technical person, though I do have sufficient technical experience to have developed considerable, well-grounded skepticism of the biases existing in traditional methods.   I know some statistics, something about modeling, something about mathematics and a lot about biology. I enjoy integrating across all those talents.

But I love the nascent ideas, the sudden explosion of a new idea, the connections of the new idea with others.  And I love the development and testing of the idea till it gets to the point it is convincing. That needs persistence to the level of stubbornness and I happily invest in that persistence.   I guess I fit somewhat into the artist type, less the technical type and still less into an efficient consolidator.

As part of that kind of scientist, I have tried to develop senses that help me listen to intriguing voices that are hidden amongst the noise.  Owlish ways to hear the rustle of the mouse. The simplest example of what I mean is in sculpting, another pleasure I have.  I start with a number of hazy ideas, and then I discover the image caught and hidden in the swirls of the wood’s grain.  I listen to the voice of the wood.

My research has always been like that.  In the early days of investigating predator/prey functional responses, the device that helped retain generalization was components analysis.  It was a way to engage levels of complexity and maintain generality.  It required a beast-for-the-moment design- the beast most appropriate for the step in hand.  The result was many voices, each playing facets of one song.  Praying mantis, insect parasitoids, deer mice and shrews, barracuda and iao, salmon, the suite of insectivorous birds in the boreal forest.  Lions and gazelles.  It was a way to listen to the hidden voice of nature.  Those voices led to the discovery of resilience.  Not a song but a symphony!

More recently, at last I heard the “world is lumpy” music that emerges from patterns in ecosystems at scales from centimeters to hundreds of kilometers, from days to millennia.  And the approach used to examine the subtleties is a bit of strong inference, but more of adaptive inference and multiple lines of evidence- from every major biome in the world, from endangered and invasive species, from nomadic and sedentary organisms (Holling and Allen 2002).  And beyond that, similar rhythms, once heard, seem to be in economic systems, social and behavioral.

Adaptive ecosystem management has been the same process.  The workshops evolved to let human voices speak- scientist, scholar, and practitioner.  I learned who they were, in heart and spirit, and each had a different contribution.  The Peerless Leader learned the guiding melody.  The Blunt Scot was on percussion.  The Snively Whiplash provided the creative dissonance.  The Utopian dreamed the impossible dreams. And the Compleat Amanuensis recorded it all.  The Benevolent Despot hummed a lot.  All these folks and the revealing workshop process and models are described in Holling and Chambers (1973).

At this point, I am delighted with the results of some of my more recent inventions, which have been made with great help from colleagues of the international Resilience Alliance and the Internet journal Ecology and Society. I really do not know what the Alliance and its journal will become as they evolve.  But basically right now they provide a foundation to develop devices to listen to the quiet voices of people- scientists and scholars of many stripes, practitioners, and for them to listen to each other.  In universities, government, the public and the private sector.  I wish in business as well.  For the moment, it is people in the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK, in Spain and Malaysia, South America and Madagascar, Canada and Australia.  In Africa.  And not just in the US.  We identify voices that have been masked by the noise, ones where novelty and experience combine.  We are finding ways to have deliberative conversations among listeners.

Holling, C.S. and A.D. Chambers.  1973.  Resource science:  the nurture of an infant.  Bioscience 23(1): 13-20.

Holling , C.S. and Craig Allen. 2002. Adaptive inference for distinguishing credible from incredible patterns in nature.  Ecosystems 5: 319-328.

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