Scientist Urges "Four Culture" Partnerships on Climate Change Communication

More than 50 years after the publication of CP Snow's seminal Two Cultures, interdisciplinary partnerships between science and other academic "cultures" are being urged once again. Today, the focus is not the Cold War but rather the challenge of engaging society on climate change and other environmental problems.

In an open access article published this month at the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, I joined with several colleagues to describe the potential for communication partnerships that involve interdisciplinary initiatives across universities and community-based institutions.

The essay is based on the insights, revelations, and conclusions from the 16 member Columbia River Quorum, which was composed of scientists, scholars, and professionals - four representatives from each of what we describe as the four academic "cultures" - who met in Oregon in 2009 for the first of what we hope will be many similar summits across the world (see photo below). The goal of that meeting was to identify and build synergies by which members of traditionally separate disciplinary cultures -- specifically the environmental sciences, philosophy and religion, the social sciences, and the creative arts and professions -- can accomplish collaboratively what none are capable of doing alone.

One of co-authors of the article and an organizer of the Four Cultures summit in Oregon was Mark Hixon, professor of Marine Conservation Biology at Oregon State University. In an interview I did with Hixon, he reflects on the origins of the summit and his outlook on the urgent need for Four Culture initiatives at universities across the country. Along with the interview, I have posted a photo and a list of the participants in the summit.

What do readers think about the need for "four culture" collaborations?  Do you know of particularly strong examples? Do you agree with Hixon that scientists shouldn't be worried about a conflict between engaging as citizens and their credibility as scientists?

Interview w/ Mark Hixon, Professor Marine Conservation Biology, Oregon State:

What motivated you to organize the Columbia River Quorum?

My Oregon State University (OSU) philosopher / writer colleague and friend, Kathy Moore, and I were sharing lunch, lamenting on the increasingly bad news regarding the state of the global environment and the lack of substantial remedial action by the United States regarding climate disruption.  We focused on the need for our society's response to accelerate past the exponentially increasing rate of environmental degradation if all the Earth's children and grandchildren are to enjoy healthy lives.

Where did the idea come from?

The need for an accelerated response by society to climate disruption and other pressing environmental issues stimulated the idea that we need new synergies.  Natural science has done a wonderful job documenting environmental threats, yet that knowledge alone has not stimulated an adequate response within our nation.  Needed are all four academic cultures -- natural sciences, social sciences, philosophy and religious studies, and communication and creative arts -- to fully engage with each other to create those synergies.  Once that need became clear to us, hosting a quorum with representatives from each of the four cultures was the logical next step.

Over the course of the weekend, what things did you come to realize?

In March 2009, Kathy's organization, OSU's Spring Creek Project, hosted 4 members of each of the 4 academic cultures at a beautiful retreat in the Columbia River Gorge (see photo below).  The energy of the weekend was exciting and truly palpable.  Ideas flowed like the great flood that carved the Gorge!  I realized then that the time was right for these new synergies to develop -- that together we in academia truly can help to bring about "the great turning" in new, more integrated, and more effective ways.

If you were to emphasize two take away conclusions from the experience for environmental scientists, what would they be?

First, let go of the entrenched worldview that our role as environmental scientists is ONLY to provide data to society regarding climate disruption and other environmental threats -- that providing data ALONE will stimulate society to respond to these threats.  That partial and isolated role has failed and will continue to do so.  

Second, engage with social scientists and non-scientist colleagues, indeed, with the public at large regarding these important issues that affect us all.  In short, do not abdicate your citizenship -- actively engage in changing the world!

Why do you think some scientists might have reservations about interdisciplinary partnerships focused on public engagement?

There are many reported reasons:  (1) the perceived lack of time and energy as we focus exclusively on teaching, research, and university administration, (2) the ineffective worldview that our role is only to provide information, (3) the false belief that our credibility as scientists will dissolve if we fully engage as citizens, etc.  I personally reject all these excuses, and I highly recommend that all scientists read Michael Nelson's recent papers (PDF) on these issues. [Nelson is a professor of philosophy at Michigan State]

What do you think are steps that can be taken at the university and disciplinary level to encourage greater "Four Culture" partnerships?

Traditional university organizational structures are insufficiently integrated and often terribly isolating, especially between the sciences and the liberal arts.  At OSU, two recent efforts building on the Spring Creek Project are fostering new synergies among the four academic cultures.  First, the once fully separate colleges of science and liberal arts have been folded into a single division of arts and sciences.  Second, a new environmental humanities initiative, the interdisciplinary Three Rivers Institute, has been formed to foster integration among human values, science, and environmental leadership.

If colleagues at another university wanted to organize their own Four Culture quorum, what advice would you give them?

Go for it!  Start with a simple foursome of one member from each culture, then build from there.  I truly believe that people are ready for revolutionary integration.  All four cultures have been working for changing the world in positive ways, largely in parallel, isolated, and often (but certainly not always) ineffective.  The time is ripe for new synergies that will accelerate our society's response to pressing environmental threats.

Members of the Columbia River Quorum (March 2009): Back row: Bob Frodeman, Scott Sanders, Steve Vanderheiden, Andreas Schmittner, Hank Green, Fred Swanson, Charles Goodrich, Kathie Olsen, John Bliss, Mark Hixon. Front row: Kathy Moore, Carly Johnson, Michael Nelson, Pam Sturner, Alison Deming, Michaela Hammer. Missing: Eban Goodstein and Matt Nisbet.


Nisbet, M., Hixon, M., Moore, K., & Nelson, M. (2010). Four cultures: new synergies for engaging society on climate change Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 8 (6), 329-331 DOI: 10.1890/1540-9295-8.6.329

See Also:

The 2009 Berlin exhibit of works about climate change by Brazilian artist Nele Azevedo (interview) which includes the painting displayed at top.

Ecologist Says Scientists Need to Re-Evaluate Approach to Communication.

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Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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