December 5, 2023

PostNormal Times: The Great Integration

PostNormal Times Podcast Andy Vosko and Javier Rodríguez

PostNormal Times is a podcast for our complex reality and unpredictable world—a world where the stakes are high and innovation is crucial. Andrew Vosko, PhD, associate provost and director of transdisciplinary studies at CGU, and his guests explore ideas that transcend traditional academic boundaries and address our most pressing needs. Get ready to challenge your assumptions.

In episode 9 of PostNormal Times, Andrew Vosko speaks with Javier Rodríguez, the co-director of the Inequality and Policy Research Center at Claremont Graduate University. He and Andrew discuss Javier’s journey from studying engineering in Colombia to studying across disciplines in the United States, how to think about identity, ways to navigate multiple perspectives as a transdisciplinarian, and reconciling the concept of inequality with that of equity.

Episode 9 Transcript

ANDREW: Welcome to PostNormal Times, a podcast for our complex reality and unpredictable world, where stakes are high, and innovation is crucial. In this series, I get to sit down with some of my favorite minds to explore new ideas that transcend traditional academic boundaries and address our most pressing needs. I’m Andrew Vosko, associate provost and director of the Transdisciplinary Studies program at Claremont Graduate University. Welcome to the show.

I would like to welcome you back to the podcast where we discuss not business as usual, but business in a transdisciplinary world. Today, I’d like to welcome my guest, Professor Javier Rodríguez from Claremont Graduate University, who’s an associate professor in the Department of Public Policy and has quite a decorated academic career. So, Javier, let me welcome you to the podcast. Thank you for coming this afternoon.  

JAVIER: Thank you so much.  

ANDREW: And I had to ask because of your academic training: It’s that kind of training that makes my eyebrows raise, and in a good way: It started off, first, in Nebraska?  

JAVIER: Actually, it started in Colombia.  

ANDREW: Okay, started in Colombia. So, what did you study in Colombia?   

JAVIER: Engineering. 

ANDREW: Okay, already this is cool. So just for everyone to pay attention: He started studying engineering and is now a professor of public policy. So, let’s take the journey to get there. After you studied engineering in Colombia, you’re like, “You know what, I want to go to Nebraska.” Is that how it happened?  

JAVIER: So, as a matter of fact, when I was studying engineering—because this is about transdisciplinarity—I was also writing novels and poetry. That’s actually how I ended up in Nebraska. When I was studying engineering—I don’t know how to translate the name of that engineering program in agri-industrial production engineering, which is mostly biochemical engineering—that particular program was the only program I applied to. So, I knew this was what I wanted to do. That program was a confabulation of many disciplines. So, it gave us a perspective on the social sciences, but then it went into the application of social science and methodologies. At the same time, it covered some of the grounds in the physical sciences and the applied sciences in technology because it was about biochemistry and the transformation of raw materials that are coming from Earth. …  

I got exposed to all of these different courses, from thermodynamics to hydraulics to sociology, and I fell in love with all of them. I was writing novels and poetry at the same time. I won some of these contests at the national level, and they helped me pay in part for the cost of attending a school in Colombia—which by the way, is very expensive.  

When I was done with that I emigrated to the United States and I tried to catch up at the University of Nebraska. But I wanted to continue writing my first novel, which is about the life of the third emperor of Rome, Caligula. I started just studying history, the classics, Roman history, and … if you’re studying Roman history, you also need to study the Greeks, and then you get into philosophy, and somehow, I ended up meeting this professor in anthropology. His name is Robert Hitchcock. He said one day to me, “You know that what you do, like doing research and writing about that research, you can have a career of that here in the United States.” It was eye-opening to me. I couldn’t ever have imagined something like that. 

He grabbed me by the hand and walked me through the process. He said, “If this is what you want to do, then maybe you want to pursue a PhD.” But I didn’t know what it was that I was supposed to be studying. I graduated with a history degree in international studies from the University of Nebraska. Then I applied to Arizona State University and I got accepted to its program. It was there, when I was doing a master’s in political economy that somehow I met—he’s a professor here now at Pitzer College—Adrian Pantoja.  

He said to me one day, “Okay, you feel like you’re a Latin American immigrant, but one day you will become a Latino.” I was like, “What are we talking about here?” So, that’s how I was introduced to literature on race, ethnicity, and politics, but from the eyes and perspective of political economy in Latin America.  

I went to my first conference ever in 2005, the very year that I arrived at Arizona State. There I met Mark Sawyer, who recently passed away. He was the person who told me, “Javier, I want you working by my side at UCLA.” For me, I was an immigrant, I wasn’t a rich person or anything like that. Maybe this professor liked what I was doing, but UCLA was so far away. Well, he convinced me to apply, and I applied and I got into the political science program at UCLA. One of the beauties of UCLA is that it’s a huge university with many opportunities. You can go and knock on the door of all these different departments.  

I remember the first place I went was the Computer Science Department with Judea Pearl, one of the creators of artificial intelligence. They do a dual program with mathematics for experimentation there and he invited me to be part of his lab. Then I got to know David Sears, a social psychologist whose work is on racism. He was one of the creators of the symbolic racism scale, and he was also a psychologist. He had one foot in the Department of Psychology and the other in the Department of Political Science at UCLA. He introduced me to people like Peter Bentler, who has methodologies for structural equation modeling, and who had one foot in psychology and the other in statistics. I started to work with him. … Part of my dissertation was a program I wrote to run sensitivity analysis on a structural equation model using an interface between R and EQS that he created himself. I remember that I was immersed in all of these different literatures. Peter works in addiction, and it highly relates to health psychology. I got immersed in the literature about allostatic load. 

ANDREW: I noticed that because I come from the physiology world, where Bruce McEwen is a legend who coined the term allostasis. I was a fan of Bruce McEwen a long time ago. Why does Javier know about allostatic load? I thought that was very interesting. 

JAVIER: So he and Teresa Seeman—I read Teresa Seeman’s work for one and a half years before noticing that she was a professor in the Division of Geriatrics at UCLA in the School of Medicine. So, I passed by her office and I said “I want to work with you.” So, now you can figure out where I am: I’m in statistics, computer science, psychology, political science— 

ANDREW: And history, novel writing, agri-bioengineering, and some other things, I’m sure. You’ve got a lot going on. 

JAVIER: And I didn’t mention that while I was studying engineering, I was also studying philosophy. 

ANDREW: As one does. 

JAVIER: That’s how I fell in love with the work of Charles Sanders Peirce on John Dewey on the philosophy of science. That was amazing. But then I come to Teresa Seeman’s door, I knock and I say, “I want to work with you.” And she said, “I’ve never worked with a political scientist. I’ve worked with economists, demographers, psychologists, you name it. This is the first time, ever, in decades of my career that a political scientist has come to my door. Why would you like to work with me? What is on your mind?” And I said … “There’s a huge amount of correlates with mortality and premature mortality, and as you say, how is that related to more to political science? If the poor are dying way sooner, we’re removing those voters from the electorate, way faster than those who continue living, who happen to be the non-poor, on average, of course. And I would like to know, how is it, really, that life shortens and that these environmental political systems, or all the things generated from the political system, among many others, literally get under the skin, which is the way they describe allostatic load becoming biology.” And she said, “Okay, you don’t need to talk anymore. You’re welcome to both of my laboratories.” And I became her research assistant for a little bit more than three years there. 

ANDREW: Wow, that’s fascinating. There are so many things that you brought up, Javier, that I want to circle back to, but one of them is just to add to one of the stories: When I was a graduate student, something I found fascinating—because I studied sleep and circadian rhythms—was allostatic load. It’s a big thing there. There was a rather famous experiment that came out of Fred Turek’s lab, where they had chronically sleep-deprived a bunch of rats, such that they were only given 70% of their normal nightly allowance—or daily allowance because they’re nocturnal—amount of sleep. After a while, if you’re used to getting eight hours and you get six hours for a few days, then usually you’ve got to rebound at the end of the week, where you sleep more during the weekend. And if you look at the EEG correlates of sleep, of what your brain should be doing: It’s usually deeper when you’re doing the rebound sleep because it’s got more growth, more rewiring, and more homeostasis to catch up on. But if you chronically, chronically, chronically sleep-deprive rats, so that they get maybe 70% of what they’re used to getting, they don’t need any more than that 70% of sleep after, but there’s now a toll on a number of other systems.  

It demonstrates really nicely how allostasis works, that the set point of your eight hours of sleep that you’d imagine for a human or if it’s like three hours as a rat—I don’t remember the exact number that a rat gets per night—that if you actually remove it to a certain level chronically, the body and the brain no longer need it. But because everything is a giant battery that has to have a constant amount of current running through it, the weight of that is going to be taken up by another system. So, the stress on other cells, the oxidative stress, the metabolic accidents—there’s just a whole bunch of other things that start going wrong when you don’t have that anymore. So, we often think in terms of allostasis that you do adjust, and you say, “Well, I’m just stressed, you know, I just have a heightened cortisol level throughout the day.” And that might be true, but that also means everything else now has to adapt to that new level. And that’s going to imbalance everything else to make that new set point work. That’s the problem with allostasis: It takes a variable, and it rearranges its distribution all throughout the body via the brain, and the body might not actually be engineered really well to handle that kind of load.  

 So, I love the concept, I think it’s fascinating, and I’m happy to talk about it at great length. But the thing that I wanted to loop back to is how your story speaks to a number of things that I love to point out in people whom I would call transdisciplinarians, or boundary crossers. In the popular vernacular, they’re called scanners and Renaissance souls. I’m sure you’ve seen this in your life, that some people are like this and lots of people are not like this. Lots of people are like, “I went to school to study engineering, I am an engineer, and I will keep being an engineer. And if something takes me out of my comfort zone, I will tell you, ‘I don’t do that, because I’m an engineer.’” 

However it sounds like you have the exact opposite response to everything: “I am an engineer, therefore, I would like to talk to a historian. Therefore, I’d like to talk to a political scientist, psychologist, sociologist, philosopher, and artist.” … I’m always interested in unpacking with people. What is it that drives you? Is it just a dopamine rush, like you’re always looking to investigate and your sense of inquiry is just insatiable, and you love it? Some people are very inquiry-driven within a disciplinary space, but when you mix that with somebody who’s unafraid to cross those boundaries, and you keep getting positive experiences from it—how do you see yourself as having a personality or a predisposition that has allowed you to do that? Whereas you’ve seen maybe colleagues who don’t do that very much? 

JAVIER:… I think that there’s a similarity with the illness that artists carry throughout their lives. There is an artistic sense not only coming out of curiosity, which is most of the time nourished through the scientific method, the research, the crafting of a research question, and the research design that will address systematically such a research question. 

I think that there’s something that you feel, really like an illness, it is something like a gift you can’t get rid of, so to speak. It is stressful at the same time, but it is a good sense of stress. It’s like a mad laugh or something like that. What drives you through the different disciplines is that you have this feeling for everything. The problem is that many people say like, “Well, I’m for everything, so I’m for nothing.” So, you need to be able to build up pressure to do change. … I think that most of the problems occur in this complexity that arises from simultaneous components in nature and in society as a whole. … I don’t see myself having been so narrow in a single discipline or feeling curious about something so specific for so long. It is more than trying to capture the big picture; at the same time, it’s being able to narrow things down to not only the forest or the branches, but down to the leaves, or something like that.  

So, it is a sense of curiosity, but it’s a feeling as well, one that hurts. … There’s a phrase by the Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Samuel Beckett. They were interviewing him and asked him, “Why did you get married?” And he said, “Why do you get married?” We used to be like these free men, and you love your freedom too, so why would you get married? And he said, “Well, the issue is that once I met this person I couldn’t be myself anymore. I wasn’t free anymore. I was thinking about only her. All my time, all my resources, or my mind space—everything was dedicated to her. I got married because I needed to be free again. So, I stopped wanting to be with her because now she’s always with me all the time. So, this marriage was like the solution to this obsession.”  

And that’s the word that I wanted to arrive at. You can’t really move on in life, in research, and in thinking without an obsession. It’s not about taste. It’s not about passion. I think you need to be obsessed with this thing. It is a situation where you are also afraid of this beast in reality, you can’t live without it. You are in this elevator for 100 floors, going up very slowly, and you have to deal with this beast. So, it’s not only a matter of passion but also obsession. It’s an artistic obsession, but you should be able to somehow channel resources to systematically bring up some structure and apply it in the scientific mode of things. 

ANDREW: Yes, it’s interesting. Because in your description of it as an almost affective space—there’s an emotive component. In neuro, that’s an affective wanting. You need it. It’s your goal orientation to always do this. The way I always thought about it was more in terms of identity, that you can’t not be you. So, you can put yourself in any context, but it’s going to come out somehow—like, you’re going to have to keep asking. You’re going to have to keep finding common ground. You’re going to have to keep threading. You’re going to have to be about crossing boundaries and making bridges. And if you were doing this while working in local government, or if you were doing this working at a university, or if you were doing this while working for a small business that your family owned, you’re always going to be you and that part of you is always going to come out. 

JAVIER: Let me tell you something about not being able not to be you. I think that the problem is that most of the time, we are not who we are. If you look around, for most people, everything is about people who are not you. So, those are their representations of the not you-ness, so to speak, and they are all over the place. It is the recognition that you are so little that you are so nothing, and it brings up this war, this challenge against the way you perceive nature, this nothingness, I would say. There’s something—I don’t want to sound pessimistic—a little existential here, perhaps. But it is that existential fissure, that personal nothingness, that is precisely who you are. 

ANDREW: Would it be possible to re-word what I’m saying to say that identity is in this way referring to one’s view of their relationship with the bigger world?  

JAVIER: Yes. And we know in psychology that, for example, we not only have our own image, we also have an image—well, our own image is constructed on the basis of the social. What people feel about you, how they think about yourself—it’s about that. So, there’s this reciprocal, bi-directional pathway in which we’re building this. But the issue is that we’re used to thinking about an identity as unity, but it is not.  

ANDREW: I agree with you.  

JAVIER: So, if we’re really thinking about how to define ourselves, it’s way harder than defining all the things that we’re not. So, if I am always nourishing this idea of unity, of how really dispersed I am on the basis that others are not what I am, that I don’t want them to be like me, or that they are the representation of the things that I am not, then the unity becomes this sense of dispersion. And then we think that we are something on the basis of this absence of ourselves because it’s precisely that absence of yourself that is building and nourishing your identity. 

ANDREW: There’s another component of transdisciplinary philosophy that can be related to this, and it’s called ternary logic. It’s this idea that you don’t need a unity of theory on everything. Some things are right at the level of reality, such that they exist and that you’re capable of perceiving them. And then something that would otherwise seem mutually exclusive exists at another level of reality that you’re also capable of perceiving it at.  

So, if a sociologist sees the COVID pandemic as a matter of people not having trust in health care or governmental institutions and therefore not wanting to be vaccinated, then they’re right at that level of reality for a number of reasons. They’re experiencing the history of how there’s a lack of knowledge and then there’s a wealth of knowledge. And at another level, there’s the notion that this will protect people from the virus, and that’s also right if you’re looking at it as strictly epidemiological—and sometimes that can happen in our own heads, where we can understand the different levels of reality about who we are.  

So, in some ways, I’m a historian, a poet, a musician, or in some ways, I am highly romantic and I’m highly passionate. We have these different facets to ourselves. In another way, I am a scientist, and I am the kind of scientist who wears a lab coat and speaks in jargonized terms so that nobody else can follow me except other scientists. I understand at those different levels of my reality. They comprise my identity, they comprise the fact of how I just navigate myself through the world. But they also comprise how I look at the world. So, it’s not threatening for me to say political science looks at this very differently than neuroscience or econ. I think you’re going to find more of those things where you hear people say, “Yeah, they look at it like that, but we don’t.” … There’s almost a discounting of that other level of reality. It’s not that you have to discount it. To me, it’s like a defense mechanism. It actually has validity and there’s a time when I need to put on that thinking cap or I need to recruit those people to help me see those thinking caps or, probably in your case, you need to immerse yourself in that world so that you can interchange that thinking cap because you can do that or you might integrate them. I’m not sure exactly how you do it. But it doesn’t hit you as a source of anxiety as much as a need to embrace it and integrate it into your own levels of reality. 

JAVIER: You mentioned something that I want to go back to once again, and that’s the simultaneous component of what is out there. Because you say, “Okay, these people, they are right, and you look at the other side, and they are also right.” There are many ways of being wrong, but you can see that right and wrong are all over the place simultaneously.  

Let me give you some examples of the social world in politics. If you want to create, do you just look at infrastructure from the New Deal to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. How are you supposed to be pushing forward now with climate change, while also giving money to the oil companies? It seems that is contrasting. It is simultaneous. Within a capitalist system, how are you supposed to be trying to solve the problems of poverty, while giving more money to the rich and more resources to these types of monopolies that are all over the place? That’s how you’re supposed to be solving the problem, but it is simultaneous. 

Let’s go back to policies. Let’s say, for example, with Barack Obama and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, we need to resolve these issues of health care for the people. And a Black man, a liberal Democrat: How is he going to do this by giving more customers to the insurance companies? Simultaneously, there is a problem and a solution that reinforces the problem itself, paradoxically. I don’t see anything that is not like that. So, this simultaneous component of nature is what people who try to arrive at a transdisciplinary approach to research, which describes the world as it is, need to incorporate into (or it is already in) their identity—like when using neurobiology to interpret the world in this simultaneous way. 

ANDREW: It’s not that common to be able to … realize how wrong it is trying to come up with a unified theory of everything, or to be able to compartmentalize everything into one space or another, or to pretend that if I’m in my world of suburban life and then I go into the city, I’m this person in city life. … There’s this big, fluid dance that one takes every day about how their realities are shaped, depending on the context they’re in. The world works like that, too, because of its complexity, because there’s so much that makes up and defines the pathway that we’re going to travel. And within that, there is a set of norms, customs, and rights and wrongs that we can adopt. 

But a lot of us are reinforced and taught, especially within traditional educational systems, that we shouldn’t go outside those lines: “This is what you do. You go to school for this reason.” I was told all the time, I don’t know if you were ever told this, like, “Are you going to be—because, you know, you studied Japanese, and biopsychology as an undergraduate student—a biopsychologist in Japan?” Whatever that means, you know? And I thought, “Why would someone look at it as if this had to have a very teleological endpoint?” I was becoming something, and this was my vehicle for getting there, and then it’s done. … It turns out that at this point, I do a line of work that doesn’t really rely on either one of those set methodologies that I learned, but I do believe the education always stays with me. It always affects how I think and how I interact with the world.   

But I had to do a lot of battling with my own cultural background, with the peer groups I held. Mentors were a little bit easier because I think they tended to look at it like, “Knowledge is knowledge, and it’s not so confined.” But I felt like there was a lot of pushback on education for education’s sake, which is one version of it, versus education for a job’s sake, which is another version of it. I don’t think it’s either one of those. You don’t have to go at one pole or another. It’s all education because the world’s complex. That kind of rhetoric, that kind of argument, wasn’t one that I ever had with anybody. If I said it’s complex, that was such an opaque statement, and it never got anywhere unless I talked to other people who were like, “Yeah, the world is really complex.” I could have coffee with you any day Javier and then it’s like, we could just talk to each other through nonverbal cues because we, I think, believe deep down that there is this kind of complexity to things that, yeah, I see it that way and I see it this way, and everything you do is a learning opportunity, and everything can be integrated into larger knowledge and the world needs your voice. If you’re thinking about it well enough, then you owe it to the world to give it back. These are all belief systems that I’ve had. But I had to learn a lot of this the hard way, through battling, because there’s always the need to find a way to make my space in the world. What was it like for you? 

JAVIER: That’s a hard question, but I think I have an answer to it. It was not a “when”. It was a “what.” When I started to approach research methods, I started to understand how the construction of knowledge actually works. Let me give you an example. We’re talking about these simultaneous aspects of life, the complexity of life. But the methods, let’s say, for example, statistics and regression analysis: The regression itself, what it’s doing is separating and compartmentalizing the complexity. So, it’s going to give you an independent effect. Why is that? Aren’t we messing things up? How is it that we are producing a methodology that does exactly the opposite of the things that we need to do to understand, without losing information? Somehow I noticed that the mathematics that underly statistics and the different methodologies that we have, including experimentation, are a replication of our neurobiology—they’re not something that we just created. We are exteriorizing how the brain works. Just like language, maybe music and arts, too, are all just ways we’re trying to put ourselves out there.   

So, it’s all a replication of ourselves. I don’t know if it is innovative or not, but that’s how our mind works. When we see how the mind works, when we want it to be structured, if we want to be systematic about it because we have an educational system, then we need a way to communicate, one by one, these ideas because we’re immersed and framed within the limitations of language. We are creatures of space and time. My words are coming only one at a time as I speak, right? We’re trying these natural barriers and these natural walls. And I notice that the methods, the mathematical operators … 

I was so surprised when I started to just learn how to add, subtract, divide, and multiply. I was always thinking, “I’m missing something because again, when you are adding two things—here we have a cup plus a thermos and they remain independent, their nature hasn’t changed at all—it’s a property of the mathematical operator.” Once I try to incorporate this information to do something with it and process it, mathematically speaking, there are some rules of these operators that remain, but some things are going to be excluded. Now, if you multiply them, if I have a lemon, sugar, and water and I make lemonade from them, then the properties of the initial components are totally … this is a new thing. So that’s multiplication or division.  

But is there something else out there in the world that is not being captured by the main operator of mathematics, which are the operators that we’re using to describe the world? I think there is. The issue is that we are wired somehow, the methods that were implemented … Right now, I know we’re working on different methodologies. I don’t know if you have noticed, for example, how AI is a metaphor for social network analysis, trying to account for unobservable heterogeneity and machine learning. All these methodologies are precisely trying to capture the simultaneous and correlational aspects of nature, the complexity itself, and they’re trying to materialize and put it in front of us as if it’s just one piece of information at a time.  

But I don’t know if you see how this is, again, another way to replicate how the mind works. Let me give you another example from real life: the Mexican Revolution. I remember that when I was studying it for the first time, I started to listen to this music—which, by the way, is beautiful music, they used the violin—and my first question was, “Why are they using the violin? This is a revolution, a revolution from the Europeans. But this is the representation of classism of the monarchies and all the elitism and the oligarchies in Europe, and yet here is a revolutionary group, trying to fight against that, using the violin itself as an instrument to liberate themselves from the same oppression.” … It’s endogenous; they are using the very same mechanisms that were used to classify and generate hierarchies in Mexico to liberate themselves from that structure.  

The same thing is happening here. We’re using, we’re embedding in the walls of our mind, the natural limitations of our brain—we’re generating these methodologies, but they have limitations. The methods themselves from which we construct knowledge about a lot of stuff—and disciplines are so idiosyncratic about these methods—are replications of these neurological systems that we are putting out there, but they naturally have embedded this endogenous component, that is a feedback loop limiting our capacity to know about things that are complex and that are happening simultaneously.  

Now, when we think about the words that you were using, about our identities, how we feel about those issues, how we process this information, and what it is that we’re observing out there in the world in a simultaneous and complex manner, there is no loss. It’s coming directly from the world into our minds: There is no methodological process in which we decompose and disaggregate the components. And then it needs to go back through the educational system, be restructured as knowledge, and passed on to our neurobiology at the social level.  

And I said, “If these are the methods that we’re using, then this is about me, this is about how I see the world.” So, it was not a “when,” it was a “what.” And that “what”—and this is what I love about science, I guess, and this illness—it never goes away. This “what” is everywhere, it’s like a ghost, and it is hunting me wherever I go. That transdisciplinary aspect of the mind—but not only about my mind, the human mind, who cares about my mind, it’s about the human mind—has this artistic component and this scientific component. But at the same time, if we’re in the business of building up knowledge, and this building of that knowledge requires these methods and these systematic ways in which we organize information, process it, and build up something out of this, how much information are we losing? That loss of information is the vacuum on the top of the wings of the airplane. That vacuum is what keeps the airplane in the air. The overall pressure under the wings in the vacuum, the differential pressures, is what keeps the airplane of signs moving forward.  

And it is not only the airplane of signs but also me that it keeps me afloat, it keeps me flying. It just means moving forward. It is the absence of things. I want to stress this is not knowledge, it is a lack of knowledge. It’s not identity but the lack of the identity, the emptiness of the thing, that moves me forward. And it was not a “when,” it was a “what.” And the “what” arises in this sense more from the scientific side than from the artistic side. 

ANDREW: Gosh, there’s so much interesting stuff that you talk about, Javier. One of the things I can’t help but think about is that in the metaphor of the brain, of how what we’re doing is externalizing and trying to re-internalize what’s going on with knowledge, there are a lot of kinds of cognitive processes that have to happen in parallel in the brain. And then the brain also has to make some kind of hierarchy around it. So, there’s a lot of inductive pathway-making of possible explanations. There’s a lot of fact-checking that happens deductively, simultaneously, to see if that happened or not. There’s a lot of integration of different sensory and perceptive systems. And then there’s a lot of top-down processing that happens. 

With a lot of these things that are happening simultaneously, the brain at some point makes a decision about which one is reality, which is the appropriate decision, or which one is dissonance, and you have to hold on to both at the same time. One of the things that is different from the way that we tend to use science in our world, is that we don’t have a brain that’s making sense of hierarchy, prioritization, or context when we’re doing all this. So, we might all be in our own siloed spaces, and the most common version of what we’re doing and saying—well, that’s for someone else to figure out. 

And then you’re in an interesting field where a lot of integration needs to happen, where things that are scientific need to be related to things that are practical, and things that reflect things that might not have the same kind of evidence base that was used in a scientific inquiry. … You can do something like look at vaccines, again, talk about the benefits of vaccines, and if that would affect policy through the expectation that if it’s informed by evidence. Now we bring it up to another level of knowledge, like “Let’s make this a public policy thing.” But it doesn’t work. It didn’t work well at all, actually, in this latest example.  

One of the themes that comes up in the transdisciplinary world is the concept of being post-normal. And I know that the term itself is a few decades old at this point. But sometimes you run into situations where scientific knowledge that’s supposed to help direct policy is lacking the knowledge of the people who are going to be affected by the policy. …  They’re different kinds of knowledge. They’re not from this very traditional kind of globalized space that’s based on the “standing on the shoulders of giants” way of understanding information. Instead, it comes from what their realities have been and what part of that is related to the knowledge that might come in a laboratory or might come from an AI modeling system. But there’s still no integrator—the integrator possibly being somebody who works in policy or the government, possibly being from populism, you know, democracy as the great integrator, and whatever the majority chooses is the thing that ends up becoming.  

This is one of the great disparities that I see. We’re on this mission to recreate our brains externally and even if we’re not trying to, it’s happening. There are some things that our brains do well, in terms of understanding the context, to create what we believe. Sometimes our brains aren’t great for us, as we know. For those who have ever been in cognitive behavioral therapy, you know our brains can play tricks on us all the time.  

But there’s a version at least of trying to understand what context is required for what kind of explanation, what kind of truth, and what kind of reality. And with the way that we try dissecting and atomizing discipline, truth, or our model systems for understanding how the world works, we integrate. There’s something that happens with you as a person that you try reintegrating everything. But are people like you responsible for making policy? Should that be the role of someone like you because you’re actually integrating? Because in a lot of spaces, that integration has failed. It doesn’t work very well. 

JAVIER: It’s funny; I’m laughing because this has been a long conversation I’ve been having with friends of mine about what happened, for example, during the pandemic. So, one of the things that became very clear to me, that was a big problem during the pandemic, was that the scientific community has no political power whatsoever. Politicians have the power. They can even lie openly, many times, and nothing happens. And the world moves in the direction of what the politicians say, even against evidence, even against the validity of the effectiveness of, for example, vaccines, social distancing, masks, etc. And then I started to propose that, given the circumstances, maybe scientists need to stop being, like, flattered when they are asked about their opinions at a decision-making table, when they become the advisors of a given politician, or when they’re made director of a public health department in California, whatever—I said, “Scientists need to become the decision-makers,” but I’ve gotten a lot of pushback on that. And I say it’s correct because scientists are weird animals. 

ANDREW: I guess we’re allowed to say that. 

JAVIER: Scientists are special and they can, if they have the knowledge, the skills, the abilities, and the training to integrate, they can also disintegrate.  

ANDREW: Yeah, I’m not sure that scientists are always going to lean or have that inclination to integrate. I think in a lot of ways, we’re encouraged, socially, as scientists, not to integrate. We’re throwing our factoids in the air like, “This is what I found. Now it’s for someone else to take it and do something with it. My job is to just create knowledge in my lane.” … We have such a complex world with so many emergent needs that if we continue on that trajectory of just throwing up our research and saying someone grabs this and does something with it, then we’re going to have lots of missed opportunities. One of the things that I noticed in my own career is that not everybody handles complexity really well. I think there’s a certain anxiety around the complexity that people can stew in, and when they do, politicians become way stronger. So, you take a pandemic world suddenly, where it’s angsty because the habits and the norms that we’re used to have to come to a crashing stop. We have to then reconstruct how we navigate through an everyday kind of situation, which is very uncomfortable because there are so many things coming at us like, “Can we go into the grocery store during these hours? Or is that only reserved for the elderly? What if somebody around me is not wearing a mask and I’m wearing a mask? And then what if I came into contact with someone three days ago, who then came down with COVID two days ago but I don’t feel anything? Am I allowed to see somebody from a distance?” … There was a lot that was coming at us.  

 And I learned from teaching people from early on after I had graduated, that when people are overcome with complexity, they turn toward gut-instinct, emotional decision-making. I think a lot of people do this. It’s a much more automatic response. It’s oftentimes right because it’s much more efficient to make these kinds of responses. If the cognitive power that you’re devoting to navigating complexity has been quashed because of its magnitude, then the natural next source to rely on is the emotional response. If politicians are good at doing anything, it’s tapping into the emotional responses of constituencies, so that they can be like, “Fear!” Like that’s a really easy one. “Anger!” That’s a really easy one, too. “Hope!” We’ve seen all these things in the political arena as we’re dealing with a complex world.  

What I’m trying to say is that the complexity of the world isn’t getting lessened. The problems that we’re dealing with, either. Scientists are pretty good at creating model systems of creating knowledge, or at least discovering knowledge, uncovering knowledge, but I’m not sure that we’re doing the job that we need to be doing. That’s why I’m so excited about this movement for transdisciplinarity, of going outside of your lane once you’ve realized something, once you need to share. And here you are, and your whole story has been from the beginning: “Because I studied one thing, I realized I wanted to study something else, and then I wanted to go to that person’s lab, and then I wanted…” That is unusual. That isn’t common. But I think that is the kind of thing we need to be encouraging with people. That’s why I’m trying to get at like, “How do we do this? How do we do more of this?” 

JAVIER: Well, thank you, because that’s an argument in favor of my idea that scientists need to get into positions of political power. Because there is an institution, the educational institution, in charge of developing transdisciplinary solutions and approaches to the development of knowledge, and … the people who are the foundations of this institution should be the ones in the positions of making decisions for the good of society.  

At the same time, I agree on incorporating or integrating the transdisciplinary components of the knowledge that we have developed. Let’s go back to the pandemic. Scientists also build up these paradigms, and one of the paradigms, for example, is economic output. So, everything that we’re setting forth is to produce a higher economic output. But the pandemic showed that the higher the economic output, making people continue going to the workplace was not in their best interest. However, the paradigm was still about continuing on, producing more economic output and growth. 

We didn’t know how to slow down the economy. But by slowing down the economy, we could shift the paradigm toward the production of social well-being, for example. The two paradigms are apparently in contradiction of each other. So, the issue is that not only are no scientists making these decisions and understanding that these things are not mutually exclusive, but also politicians are not scientifically educated. And if they are not scientifically educated, they will struggle to incorporate into social solutions, like policies, the transdisciplinary components of the complexity of the problems that we’re facing. 

ANDREW: I want to add one more piece to this. And I think that I would push back a little bit on the science thing, even though I also think that scientists are amazing, awesome, and weird creatures. But you also had a humanistic background that coexisted with your scientific background. One of the things that I’ve looked at is how humanists view the world. How were you trained to view the world as a humanist? How do you integrate knowledge and evidence? One of the things that I think you are trained very, very highly in as a humanist is actually this concept of interspectivity, that you realize that you can study allostasis even though you’re a poet or a political scientist, or you can study computer science and understand that that’s another component to the reality of the world, or math as a symbolic representation of the world. Understanding that your metacognitive capacity can be changed according to which cognitive hat you have on at any given time and that you have the power to change those cognitive hats, is a very humanistic understanding of education.  

And so, I think when you say scientists could be those politicians, I would say scientists with some other kinds of training, like humanistic or artistic training, so that they understand the degrees of freedom around knowledge. Because that’s something you learn very intuitively, and you learn it through a deep analysis of things like texts, contexts, histories, and arts. So, I think that there’s a traditional primacy we give to science as the focus of that argument. But I think that … if we’re ever going with like the “Plato philosopher-king” kind of view here, I don’t think that you have to define the difference between somebody who studied history and somebody who studied neuroscience. I think that those things are all part of the same “king” that Plato was talking about. That kind of reintegrated education is huge for the capacity to find an integrator because some of those things have to be trained a little bit. It’s like having all the right ingredients, but you don’t have anywhere to cook. I think that having some of these disciplines in concert with each other—and maybe not just this idea that you do liberal arts undergrad, you do specialty in grad—is a way to do it. But that’s not how the world works. We have to keep on reintegrating, we have to keep on seeing from different points of view. And there’s a certain level of sophistication we have to develop over time as well. So, I think that there’s never an end to when you could really use these different components of the disciplines as they come about if you want to make a difference, so to speak, politically or add your footprint to the world in a good way and not necessarily in a carbon way.   

JAVIER: If you think about it, for example, a policy or program is artificial by nature. If you have a headache, and I give you aspirin, aspirin is not how the world works. It’s an intervention. These solutions are artificial by themselves. They are man-made for a humanistic end. They could be for any end, but for the sake of conversation, let’s continue in the line of humanistic views of the world, the problems, and the possible solutions, and these solutions being able to address, in a compassionate way and in a non-inequality-fostering manner … the problem mechanism itself, so they get perpetuated. 

The humanistic way would say, “No, we want this to end; we really want this to be better.” It is not that we want to decrease poverty; we want to get rid of poverty, right? Why is it that there is poverty even in the richest nations in the world? What is going on? So, the costs of poverty are way lower than all the money invested in solving poverty. We see this replicated across government systems, economic systems, and points of view. So, these are paradigms through which humanism will reach out to the human spirit and say, “Okay, how can we put together these tools, institutionally, at the service of society? 

I’m trying to stress the word institutional. Because, again, the politicians are the ones who are making the decisions. They are the ones writing the policies, they are the ones running the programs, and they are the ones running the rules of the game. They make the rules. They write the laws. They have the power of government to produce and reproduce belief systems, social psychology, cultures, and everything. If these solutions of a humanistic nature are not institutionalized, I don’t see where this is going. I don’t see how we can reach a true transdisciplinary integration of solutions without a humanistic view. And that is a big issue. That’s actually one of the reasons why I do what I do, why … I studied inequality instead of equity.   

ANDREW: That’s what I want to ask. Before we before we wrap up here, why do you study inequality specifically? 

JAVIER: … Because you need variation, right? You need variation. If you just look at equity, you are truncating the variation, you only have a perspective of the world. It isn’t the distribution of inequality. Inequality is also a synonym for variation. When you look at the full house of variation, you see in the bottom tail of the distribution the problem and in the top tail the solution. So, you can say that there’s equity, but you don’t want equity in poverty, right? There are different interpretations of what equity and inequality are. Inequality incorporates the definition of the problem and also has enough variation in its mechanisms that we use to define, detect, and measure it, for a solution to equity.  

Equity seems to me too artificial to be scientific, in many regards. It can be a topic for philosophy, I don’t criticize it. But if we are looking for a solution to inequality, or for variations on a given trait—like mortality, premature mortality, infant mortality, maternal mortality, illness, morbidity, comorbidity, etc.—we need to integrate conceptualizations and risk designs that address the totality of the variety of manifestations of these problems, or the solutions themselves.  

Again, the top of the distribution is part of the solution, and the bottom is part of the problem. But if you look at the totality of the variation, that is the complexity and the simultaneity that you can observe in the world. … That’s why my center is the Inequality and Policy Research Center. It’s not the equity and policy system, it’s the Inequality and Policy Research Center. 

ANDREW: So, for our listeners … Javier runs, I think your co-director, you’re the director— 

JAVIER: I’m the co-director with Melissa Rogers.  

ANDREW: That’s the Inequality and Policy Research Center at CGU. You do amazing work there. But you do have, as you mentioned, an intentional title about inequality. One of the things that I really appreciate you talking about is that inequality and equity don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can’t say that you study one at the expense of the other. Both have a place. Both should be studied. They can be studied in a way that isn’t threatening to the other, with respect for what both of them bring about. As you said, there is a complex space within inequality.  

JAVIER: Again, for example, I don’t see a conflict between conceptualizations of inequality and how we measure and study inequality. The manifestations of inequality aren’t at odds with incorporating equity. Equity is part of inequality, right? Inequality is the totality of the variation. I don’t see very much of the opposite going around. If you talk only about equity, and equality, you are truncating the variation. You’re looking at one part of the distribution and you may not be able to operationalize correctly and conceptualize and measure, in models of equity, the problem by itself. The humanistic component or the humanistic view that we want needs to be sensitized. It’s something that we need to be sensible about. If you don’t see the problem, what’s going to be your solution that you can actually define?

ANDREW: Javier, we’ve had an intense conversation, and that’s the kind I love, We need to have coffee more often so that we can have these kinds of conversations around campus and with students and other faculty members. One of the things for a long time that’s been said at this institution is that great conversations are really the heart of an institution of higher learning. Thank you for being a transdisciplinarian, Javier. I think it sounds really cool. And thank you for your time on our podcast today; this was really fun. I hope that you had a nice little afternoon chat out of this. 

JAVIER: Oh, absolutely. Thank you for having me.  

ANDREW: Thanks for listening to this episode of PostNormal Times. Thanks to our guests, and thanks to our support from Claremont Graduate University. If you enjoyed boundary crossing with us and want to hear more, make sure you follow us, spread the word, and tune in to our next episode. 

This podcast transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.