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London Interdisciplinary School ©2019

Interdisciplinary perspectives on risk

A 360-degree appreciation of risk

Most of us are intimately familiar with the kinds of risk we habitually encounter in our personal and professional lives. This means that our understanding of risk––however good it may be in its own domain––is selective; we do not usually have access to the perspectives and expertise of others. The neurosurgeon is not acquainted with the risks taken by the visual artist, and the visual artist has no access to the risks negotiated by the investment banker. While we cannot become experts in every kind of risk, we can certainly learn about divergent ways of modelling risk and use this to improve decision-making in our professional and creative lives. This course will defamiliarize your understanding of risk by situating it in an interdisciplinary context.

Why use interdisciplinarity to explore risk?

We use the metaphor of the dragonfly’s eye. The eye of a dragonfly is a compound eye made up of thousands of smaller eyes. Each of these smaller eyes sees only a tiny part of the whole. But together, they provide a far richer representation of the world than we have access to – dragonflies see reality at 200 frames per second where humans are confined to 60. The LIS faculty brings together expertise from a diversity of disciplines––from machine learning to complexity science to social psychology to aesthetics. At LIS, learners discover the compound lenses that make up the dragonfly’s eye of interdisciplinarity.

Illustrative course content

At all points, course content is designed to both unsettle and augment your existing knowledge of risk. This will enlarge your ability to interpret and manage risk, while also fostering understanding of how others approach it in their work.

Tipping points and non-linearity

The cusp catastrophe is a mathematical model that shows how simple interactions between two variables can have a profound effect on a third variable. It has been used to explain fight-flight reactions in animals, binge-purge cycles in eating disorders, riot outbreaks in prisons, and the impact on performance of different kinds of anxiety in basketball players. We will use it to explore the notion of tipping points, and how even seemingly stable systems are at risk of catastrophic departures from normal behaviour.

Risk and entropy

Risk is always maximised in situations of high unpredictability. This is measured in information theory by a metric called entropy, which specifies how unpredictable a system is. There is a growing literature in cognitive psychology that links anxiety to entropy: the more uncertain or ambiguous a situation is, the more it entrains anxiety. We will use the links between anxiety, risk, and entropy to explore how human beings respond emotionally to risk. This will allow us to distinguish between uncertainty and risk in a structured way, and predict the likely outcome of both on those who are subject to them.

Cultural representations of risk

Our culture is saturated by representations of risk and the impact it has on individuals. This provides us with an opportunity to explore risk from the inside: short of being personally exposed to risk, the literary and cultural record is the closest we will get to experiencing its subjective impact. We will engage in this exploration by way of a novel (Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love) and a film (Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter). Both of these works explore situations of extreme risk and the impact this has on psychologically plausible characters. We will study the ways in which risk is constructed, and interrogate whether (and how) ‘fictional’ knowledge like this can be integrated with more objective analyses of risk.

Epistemology, expertise and risk

Certain knowledge allows us to act on the world with confidence. For this reason, we are particularly exposed to risk when we encounter knowledge that seems certain but in fact isn’t. To solve this problem, we have created the category of ‘experts’: an individual who, in virtue of training and accreditation, can be trusted to give us access to truth. But experts have fallen on hard times; allegedly, people no longer trust experts, and prefer to get their facts elsewhere. This part of the course will use philosophy to explore the nature of expertise––how it functions, why we trust it, and when we stop trusting it. Necessarily, this will also touch on questions of authority and epistemic justice: do some people get believed merely because they are powerful? The course will foster the skills necessary to evaluate expertise, and where best to deploy it.

Risk and narrative

We have many cultural tools for managing risk and uncertainty, but one of the most powerful is narrative. By telling stories that have a well-defined structure, we map the chaotic nature of social life into categories that we intuitively understand. This part of the course will do two things. Firstly, it will use insights from linguistics and cognitive science to explore the inner workings of narrative, and show the ‘grammar’ by which stories are constructed. We will then use our new understanding of narrative to dissect some of the more common political, cultural, and commercial narratives that we encounter in everyday life. Knowledge of narrative will equip us with a powerful tool for both communicating about risk with greater power and precision, and interrogating the narratives to which we are subjected.

The art of risk

As a creative endeavour, art is one of the riskiest undertakings a human being can engage in. It has to be: if we knew what the outcome would be in advance, there would be little point in creating art in the first place. This part of the course will give an overview of how risk, chance and uncertainty have been experienced and expressed in art. This exposure will help to enhance our visual literacy and will be complemented by hands-on artistic practice: attendees will be inducted into the creative process and asked to take the risk of creating something entirely new.

Course deliverables

At the end of this course, you will have gained the ability to look at the concept of risk through multiple lenses. In practice, this means you will be able to:

Model risk using methods and threshold concepts from several disciplines
Appreciate the ways in which colleagues and peers think about risk, and develop techniques that help to build consensus around risk-taking
Manage unfamiliar dimensions of risk when they are encountered
Better synthesise multiple intersecting (and often competing) perspectives on a single topic
Develop skills that enable self-directed learning in new domains
Challenge and refine your approach to the risks you are negotiating in daily life

Course structure

The course is highly interactive and you will have the opportunity to engage with faculty members on a one-to-one basis at your discretion.

Meet the LIS faculty here

Course duration: 6 weeks

Contact time: 2 - 4 hours per week

Independent study time: 4 - 6 hours per week

Designed for online