During my scanning of the news over recent weeks I noticed the diverse range of articles on recent coral bleaching events, related scientific research, and the future of the Great Barrier Reef, e.g.:
‘Great Barrier Reef could be dead within 20 years, Australia scientists have warned’ (link)
‘Great Barrier Reef and Other Corals May Survive Bleaching by Being Promiscuous’ (link)
‘Great Barrier Reef: Signs of recovery despite major coral bleaching’ (link)
‘Great Barrier Reef’s road to recovery’ (link)
‘‘Worst coral bleaching in history’ kills HALF of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of far north Queensland’ (link)
‘The Great Barrier Reef’s Coral Bleaching Event Is The Canary In The Coalmine For All The World’s Oceans’ (link)
‘How worried should we be about bleached coral reefs?’ (link)
Some of these articles report diverse research findings. For example, researchers found that some corals are able to better adapt to warmer water by being “promiscuous” and attracting and hosting new types of microalgae that can survive in warmer water. They also found that, following bleaching events, surviving coral hosted new types of microalgae better adapted to warmer temperatures. Other researchers have concluded that bleaching events are likely to become more frequent and significant in a warming world. Linked with this some scientists contend that more frequent bleaching events will mean that post-bleaching coral recovery is hampered leading to declining reef health.
Earlier research, which was reported in Australian Geographic magazine, found that some coral pass on more heat-tolerant genes. These studies point to potential new reef conservation approaches whereby human interventions aim to assist adaptation to warmer ocean temperatures.
Some research findings point to evolutionary processes whereby the mechanism of natural selection, and associated processes of local adaptation, lead to coral species that are better adapted to new environmental conditions. Other findings present (or suggest) a more negative outlook for the Great Barrier Reef. Related considerations focus on conservation practices, such as the more or less interventionist models explored by Emma Marris in her book Rambunctious Garden.
All this got me thinking as what I had observed on social media during recent weeks is that different groups of people I know tended to focus on different aspects of the bleaching event and different research findings, with different findings diffusing through specific networks. This process seems consistent with concept of thought communities that was developed by Eviatar Zerubavel.
In his book Social Mindscapes Zerubavel outlines a novel approach to studying human cognition, which he terms cognitive sociology, that seeks to highlight and understand the “social foundations of our thinking” (p.21). The book is opened by the following provocative Karl Mannheim quote (try to ignore the sexist language and focus on Mannheim’s key points):
“It is not men in general who think, or even isolated individuals who do the thinking, but men in certain groups who have developed a particular style of thought… Strictly speaking it is incorrect to say that the single individual thinks. Rather it is more correct to insist that he participates in thinking further what other men have thought before him”
Consistent with Mannheim’s perspective Zerubavel argues that human beings are social beings whose thinking is shaped by the thought communities they belong to: “while we certainly think both as individuals and as human beings, what goes on inside our heads is also affected by the particular thought communities to which we happen to belong” (p.9). Zerubavel examines six cognitive acts: perceiving, attending, classifying, assigning meaning, remembering and reckoning with time. These acts are argued to be shaped by the various thought communities an individual belongs to.
Take the process of attending which is particularly relevant to this blogpost. Zerubavel contends that social influences play roles “in delineating the scope of our attention and concern… [O]ur social environment … helps determine what actually “enters” our minds” (p.35). He emphasises the general phenomena of mental focussing along with our mental horizons – where “we exclude certain parts of reality from our attention and concern” – and contends that for the most part our mental horizons are “neither natural nor logical” (pp. 40-41). Social factors, such as conventional cognitive traditions associated with different professions and communities, play important roles. Indeed scientists from different scientific disciplines (e.g. from climate science, evolutionary biology, marine ecology, etc) attend to different aspects of the coral bleaching issue (and exclude other parts of reality).
Zerubavel also emphasises “the considerable extent to which thought communities’ specific cognitive “biases” affect what their members come to notice” (p.48). He makes this point with respect to the professional training of scientists but it has much wider relevance. For example, regarding coral bleaching, some people (as members of particular thought communities) may be more likely to notice aspects related to evolutionary processes – and the potential for local adaptation to new conditions – or focus on other aspects of the problem. Zerubavel adds that:
Not only does our social environment provide us with a general idea of what we can disattend, it very often also tells us what we should repress from our consciousness and ignore. In other words there is an important (though relatively unexplored) normative dimension to relevance and irrelevance. Indeed, probably the main reason that our own focussing patterns seem so natural or “logical” to us is that they are usually normatively binding (p. 50).
Other cognitive acts such as perceiving (and the way we mentally process what we perceive through our senses) and assigning meaning (e.g. symbolic associations) are also relevant. Work on cognitive sociology provokes consideration of a “process of “optical” socialization” which results in patterns in how people “learn to “look” at things” (p. 32). It is evident in many articles on coral bleaching that particular mental lenses shape perception of these events and how they are mentally processed. Additionally, what a coral bleaching means to someone depends on what it represents – i.e. what bleached coral, or a major coral bleaching event, is considered to signify. The key point made by cognitive sociology is that most symbolic associations are not simply the work of individual minds; rather it involves shared meanings and they are based on the conventional nature of symbols. Zerubavel also warns that there is a tendency to mistake inter-subjectivity (shared meanings) with objectivity.
The sorts of cognitive acts noted above (amongst others) – of attending, assigning meaning, and perceiving – are likely to influence to what futures are imagined and responses to such imaginaries. It also suggests that the types of futures that people imagine for the Great Barrier Reef are, to some extent, dependent on what thought communities they are part of. Fascinating stuff!