17 August 2011

Obituary: John Marburger

Nature asked me to write an obituary for John H. "Jack" Marburger, III who died in late July.  It was a challenging and humbling assignment.  It appears in this week's issue (also here in PDF).

Marburger should remembered not only through what others write about him, but for what he himself wrote.  To that end, below I republish a wonderful speech of his that I came across in my research for the Nature piece. The speech was delivered in July, 1981 upon Marburger being announced as president of New York's Stony Brook University.  Enjoy.
THE TRAP OF THINKING WE KNOW IT ALL

John H. Marburger 3d made these remarks in a speech at his recent inauguration as third president of the State University at Stony Brook in July, 1981.

There are two kinds of ignorance: the kind removable by education, and the other kind, which is defined by the limits of current knowledge. It seems to me that in extolling the virtues of higher education we have overemphasized the removable ignorance and encouraged the notion that more is knowable than is actually the case. This has mischievous consequences.

Living with ignorance is for an academic something like living in sin. We are supposed to conquer ignorance through research, and urge our students not to be satisfied until they understand what is happening around them. Modern education consists of continual exposure to the knowable domain of human experience. We profess humility and declare the limitations of our knowledge, but spend all the time in our lectures talking about what is known. That may be inevitable. The consequence, however, is that our students and we ourselves, I am afraid, form the habit of assuming that things can be explained.

Our conviction of knowability surely derives from the success of the physical sciences, where nature allows herself to be mimicked accurately by mathematical models. The predictive success of science has been so great that efforts have been made in every other practical field to introduce scientific methods. The results have been useful, but reliable predictions can be achieved outside physical science only in the simplest situations.

Even where we do not have a clear understanding of the relation between means and ends, however, we use language patterned after the more successful sciences to describe events. This encourages the illusion, among the inexpert, that we know more than we do. Medicine has employed this practice with success for millennia.

Even our admiration for directness and clarity of thought reinforces the habit of the assumption of knowability. Events are simplified by electronic journalism to ''problems'' expressed in language that suggests both their origin and their solution. The practices of encapsulation, of briefing and of interviewing encourage oversimplification and enhance the illusion of comprehensibility.

What is wrong with glossing over this other ignorance? At the very least, it increases the impatience and frustration that we always feel when things do not go smoothly. If we are supervisors or managers or taxpayers, we tend to expect more from our organizations or our employees or our governments than is reasonable.

When something goes wrong, our first impulse is to blame it on poor planning or on the ignorance of those responsible. If the ignorance is of the removable kind, blame and censure are justified. But if it is the other kind of ignorance, the inevitable kind, then censure is inappropriate. Failure to appreciate the distinction between avoidable and unavoidable ignorance leads to unrealistic management practices. It is a hallmark of inexperienced managers.

In times of peace and prosperity, defects in our world view are of little consequence. Adversity shows them up. When funds are scarce, budget controllers attempt to match allocations as closely as possible to estimated needs. If they believe that those needs can be estimated exactly, they will have little patience with managers who protest ignorance of how to do it. Each legislative act, each regulation, is a hypothesis about the relation between a desired end and a means to achieve it. To the extent that hypothesis is incorrect, the end cannot justify the means.

Budget control, legislation and regulation are processes that depend very sensitively on our understanding of cause and effect in human affairs. For reasons that I have suggested, these processes tend to assume greater understanding than we possess. They tend to mistrust protestations of ignorance and to punish inability to control events even when they are uncontrollable. In our democratic society, some of the blame must rest with voters and taxpayers, who compare our successes in scientific ventures with our failures in economic and social affairs.

The inevitablility of ignorance is not necessarily cause for despair. We do have ways of managing our affairs that accommodate uncertainty. As physical science has been the model for mechanistic views of human affairs, engineering has provided models that admit ignorance and chaos. Engineering thoughtfulness about the problem of communicating in the presence of random disturbances and the problem of unattended operation of devices in unpredictable environments suggests ways of approaching administration, law and social reform. Modern trends in management theory do exploit these notions.

In the final analysis, decisions about how to act are made by individual men and women. They may be central planners or local managers. They may be aware or unaware of their ''immense'' ignorance. But they all possess an instrument that has been found by experience to be extremely powerful in dealing with ambiguity and surprise: the human mind.

We do not know how the mind works, how it transforms information into action. We do not understand intuition, or wisdom, or sound judgment. But such qualities do exist, and they are universally admired. However we choose to do our business in state or school or home, we must not embrace a course that limits the application of these qualities.

We do not understand human societies, or what motivates them to war or work together. We do not understand precisely the relation between acts of individuals and their consequences in the larger community. We do know that communal cooperation is normal and that individuals are often enormously influential in organizing and focusing the efforts of society.

Our best chance for coping with the reality of ignorance is to rely upon the vast integrative power of the human mind. We must learn to develop this power in ourselves and to recognize it in others, even if we do not understand it. And we need to respect it and to organize our affairs so that it may be brought to bear in all situations illdefined and poorly understood. The kind of mental development I have in mind is not simply instruction in various systems, theories or models of how things and people work, but also exposure to the quandaries of the real world and how real people have responded to them in the past.

In this respect, the part of university education whose content (not whose presentation) is the least methodical seems to be of the greatest value. The view that I am advocating is a humanistic one, because it recognizes explicitly human capacities that cannot be duplicated or replaced by systems, policies or machines. And it is precisely the humanistic material in our curricula that seems best suited for developing those capacities.

We have come to this point by a long argument, but I can find none better for the value of the humanities in modern education. The humanities are valuable because they deal openly with the inevitability of ignorance and the consequences thereof. They show us how great men and women faced incomprehensible situations. They tune the instrument by which ultimately we all grapple with the question of how to act without sufficient knowledge. And they urge us to free that instrument, the educated human mind, from the restraints of ignorance, even ignorance of ignorance itself.

4 comments:

  1. A reflection on a man with neutral integrity is a fine way to remember someone you admire. It is a very becoming last testimony of a scientist. We should all hope to be so objective.

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  2. What a lovely speech on the inevitability of ignorance! Thanks so much for posting it.

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  3. As a Stony Brook graduate with a degree in the humanities, I am gratified to learn about the high regard physicist Marburger held for an education in the humanities - to sharpen the mind for openly “grappl[ing] with the question of how to act without sufficient knowledge” and to free it from the “restraints of ignorance”. Perhaps, if more climate scientists had a better footing in the humanities, their overall dealings with “uncertainty”, openness, and communications (particularly when defending positions) would have been improved.

    I am sure Dr. Marburger’s tenure as science adviser during both administrations of President George W. Bush could not have been more difficult. Given the issues then (combating terrorism at home, climate change, stem cell research, scientific creationism, claims of the politicization of science, etc.), and given your recollections of a hostile public audience in 2005 and of his statement then of support for action on climate change (a departure from the 2004 report he told the New York Times, “No one will know my personal positions on issues as long as I am in this job”), he must have endured tremendous backlash on and off the job.

    His writings, to be posthumously published, will make interesting reading. Perhaps, you have the inroads to an eventual biography!

    BTW, Donald Rumsfeld is famous for saying: “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns; there are things we do not know we don’t know.” Maybe some of Marburger rubbed off as, I am sure, he and Rumsfeld met in the halls of the White House – I don’t believe Rumsfeld was ever victim to the “trap of thinking we know it all”.

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