Why Field Science?

The conventional wisdom today holds that if a young person just starting out wishes to be successful in life, he or she should pursue a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). This hyper focus on STEM has caused some to ask the natural question: “What will become of the humanities?” As an example, consider the following article entitled Will Our STEM Obsession Squeeze Out Other Subjects? I would go one step further and argue that our current obsession is actually an obsession with lab-based STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math carried out principally in laboratory or digital environments. Lab-based STEM tends to deemphasize the importance of such things as the real world, the body, the analog. As such, lab-based STEM tends to deemphasize the importance of the humanities with their focus on such things as real worlds, face to face relationships, moral and ethical concerns, the artistic.

Here at the FHL Foundation we feel that the field sciences occupy a unique position in that they nicely bridge between the humanities and STEM. Simply, the field sciences offer up the best of both worlds. To be a good field scientist, you have to be comfortable bridging between left brain linear thinking and right brain creative feeling. In essence, rational thinking goes glove and hand with intuitive sensing. (For more on intuitive sensing, see the book Blink by Malcom Gladwell.) We believe in what some cognitive scientists (i.e., George Lakoff and Mark Johnson) call embodied cognition: the idea that we use the body to think about the world as much as we use our mind. This goes along with the idea that we have implicit body or procedural memories (which you use every time you ride a bike or drive a car) and explicit mind memories (which you use to tell a story). We believe that the field sciences encourage integration of both body and mind ways of experiencing cognition. As George Lakoff points out in his work, walking through the world is the conceptual foundation upon which our ability to construct sentences rests: both have a beginning, an action or movement, and an end. Whereas the mind can imagine many different paths all at the same time, the body realizes only one. The field sciences encourage integration between the mind world of many simultaneous paths, and the body world of one path. As a graduate student I would often hear the saying, “So many Ph.D. projects … so little time.” You can imagine as many possible projects as you wish (and such imaginings are great fun), but ultimately you will be judged on one thesis or dissertation, by one defense.

From the disciplines of spatial behavior and cognitive mapping we learn that active participation in and exploration of the real world are royal roads toward development of open and flexible Inner Working Cognitive Models. Suffice it to say that open and flexible Inner Working Cognitive Models are part and parcel of what are known as Executive Functions: planning, mental modeling, perspective taking, empathy, mental time travel, delaying gratification, etc. (For more on the topic of delaying gratification, see the book The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel.) Suffice it to say that a student wishing to complete a masters degree or a doctorate, will have to draw upon myriad Executive Functions—delaying gratifications now for rewards in the future, mapping out your program of study, monitoring your progress, imagining yourself in the future as a geologist or marine biologist, taking on the perspectives of teachers, professors, and fellow students, etc. We feel that there is no better way to develop Executive Functioning than to pursue a career in the field sciences with their focus on active participation in and exploration of the real world. We are concerned that an obsession focused on lab-based STEM may ultimately lead to a diminution of Executive Functioning and such things as empathy, perspective taking, mental modeling, delaying gratification, mental time travel, etc. Social critics such as Nicholas Carr (The Shallows), Eli Pariser (The Filter Bubble), and Robert McChesney (Digital Disconnect) share our concern.

Let me end by mentioning the work of developmental psychologist John Bowlby. Working mainly in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Bowlby introduced the world to attachment theory with its focus on the idea that higher order animals (i.e., dogs, horses, elephants, primates, etc.) and humans possess an innate behavioral system—the attachment behavioral system—that causes us to seek safety and comfort from caregivers when threatened, and to explore the world during periods of calm and regulated emotion. Bowlby theorized that an open and flexible Inner Working Model (mentioned above) is the royal road toward a seamless ability to move out into the world during emotional calm, and return to what Mary Ainsworth called a safe base during times of stress or threat. Bowlby collaborated with his lifelong colleague Mary Ainsworth, who conducted extensive fieldwork in Kenya. Bowlby was greatly influenced by the field of ethology: studying animal behavior in natural environments. What Bowlby ultimately discovered (and wrote about in great detail in his trilogy on attachment) was the following: early safe and secure attachment (if all goes well) is the foundation upon which robust Executive Functioning rests. (This connection is talked about in Mischel’s book The Marshmallow Test.) In Bowlby’s view an open and flexible Inner Working Model bridges between the world of early attachment relationships and later adult expressions of Executive Functioning. (These bridging actions can be empirically evaluated using an instrument such as the Adult Attachment Interview.) Our focus, then, on the field sciences is very much in keeping with Bowlbian attachment theory with its focus on (and integration of) such disciplines as biology, ethology, anthropology, evolution, geology, developmental psychology, organismic systems theory, cognitive mapping, and spatial behavior.

Further reading (along with the books mentioned above):

Barkley, R. (2012). Executive functions—What they are, how they work, and why they evolved. New York: Guilford Press.

von Bertalanffy, L. (1969). General System Theory: Foundations, development and application. New York: Braziller.

Bowlby, J. (1969/1982). Attachment and loss, vol. I: Attachment (Second Edition). New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss, vol. II: Separation—Anxiety and anger. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss, vol. III: Loss—Sadness and depression. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1989). Charles Darwin—A new life. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

van Dijken, S. (1998). John Bowlby: His early life—A biographical journey into the roots of attachment theory. London: Free Association Books.

Carr, N. (20100. The shallows—What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: Norton.

Downs, R. & Stea, D. (Eds.). (1973). Image and environment—Cognitive mapping and spatial behavior. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Dunbar, R. (1996). Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ellis, K. (2013). Confessions of a scholarship winner. Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing.

Esser, A. (Ed.). (1971). Behavior and environment—The use of space by animals and men. Proceedings of an International Symposium held at the 1968 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Dallas, TX. New York: Plenum Press.

Fonagy, P. et al. (2002). Affect regulation, mentalization, and the development of the self. New York: Other Press.

Golledge, R. (Ed.). (1999). Wayfinding behavior—Cognitive mapping and other spatial processes. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press.

Hammond, D. (2003). The science of synthesis—Exploring the social implications of General Systems Theory. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado.

Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kitchin, R. & Blades, M. (2002). The cognition of geographic space. London: I.B. Tauris.

Kraemer, S. & Roberts, J. (Eds.). (1996). The politics of attachment—Towards a secure society. London: Free Association Books.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh—The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought. New York: Basic Books.

Laszlo, E., Artigiani, R., Combs, A. and Csányi, V. (1996). Changing visions—Human cognitive maps: past, present, and future. Westport, CT: Praeger.

LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain—The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Maestripieri, D. (Ed.). (2003). Primate psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Marris, P. (1996). The politics of uncertainty—Attachment in private and public life. London: Routledge.

McChesney, R. (2013). Digital disconnect—How capitalism is turning the Internet against democracy. New York: The New Press.

Nisbett, R. (2003). The geography of thought—How Asians and Westerners think differently…and why. New York: Free Press.

Pariser, E. (2011). The filter bubble—What the Internet is hiding from you. New York: Penguin Press.

Thompson, M. (2012). Homesick and happy—How time away from parents can help a child grow. New York: Ballentine Books.