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BOOK REVIEW: Wavell Cowan’s New Book “Escaping an Evolutionary Dead-End” and His Zest for Scientific Thinking

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a review by Nat Frothingham

Photo by Michael Jermyn
Photo by Michael Jermyn

Inventor, thinker, scientist, businessman, problem-solver, active citizen, writer — Moretown, Vt. resident Wavell F. Cowan comes very close to being the ideal Renaissance man.

Cowan was born in Brooklyn, New York, but spent a big chunk of his life in Canada and very early in his impressive career was hired out of graduate school to go to Glasgow, Scotland, and confront the problems of a paper mill that by his own account “had gotten into serious financial difficulties.” Cowan spent three exciting years at the Glasgow paper mill and registered some notable successes. His biggest personal gain was a belief both in the power of scientific thinking and a growing confidence in his problem-solving abilities.

While his road was not easy, in due course Cowan invented process equipment and test instruments and started a company now called Pulmac Systems International. Pulmac equipment can be found today in pulp and paper mills across the world.

Now, Cowan has written a book drawing on his varied experience as a scientist, inventor, businessman and active citizen. “Escaping an Evolutionary Dead-End” is Cowan’s meditation on the need to employ scientific thinking not just where scientific thinking has been typically employed. Yes, it’s Cowan’s view that we’re in a current dead-end rut. But he argues we can get out of that rut. And the question he asks is this, Why can’t we apply scientific thinking as we tackle such current social problems as education, the economy, health care and the environment?

In a recent interview with Cowan, I found him interested in discussing what he knew as opposed to making scattershot comments about things he knew very little about.

Cowan did acknowledge the stupendous revolutionary achievements of modern science over the past 300 years — a science that has delivered such things as labor-saving devices, electronic communications including the Internet, steamships, cars, planes, miracle seeds, medicines and medical interventions and spacecraft that can take us to the moon and let us explore the planet Mars.

Cowan is not suggesting that we ditch these impressive inventions. In fact, he believes that it’s at least partly because of the inventions we have at our disposal today that we can maximize our efficiencies by working not in large but in smaller organizations and units.

In his work with pulp and paper mills, Cowan spent a large part of his adult life dealing with large businesses in the paper industry and he observed that, in general, larger businesses displayed greater dysfunction than smaller businesses. In large organizations, employees had often lost their motivation and enthusiasm. Instead of producing manufactured items that were of higher quality and lower cost, such items were often of lower quality and higher cost. Inevitably, a large company was divided into large departments and instead of seeing adventurous thinking and innovation, people were often playing it safe, playing politics, instead of asking searching questions and challenging the status quo.

In sum, Cowan believe that the driving force for going large has disappeared. Instead he contends, “Small organizations can do what large organizations could only do before.” And he observes, “Small organizations do not produce the same sorts of problems that large organizations do.”

In Cowan’s world, “small” is a cherished value. And another cherished value for Cowan is what he calls “pluralism.”

Cowan goes all the way back to World War II to discuss what he means by pluralism. During World War II, the United States (indeed the Allied powers) were locked in a race against time to develop an atomic bomb before the Germans developed such a bomb. At the time there were four different proposals for how to make the required amounts of fissionable material that was needed to build a successful bomb. Instead of concentrating in one location the project of making fissionable material, the U.S. government decided to assign the project to four different locations using four different processes. Running four concurrent projects proved to be the key to the success of producing enough fissionable material for the two bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II.

As Cowan concludes in “Escaping an Evolutionary Dead-End”, “If a more ‘efficient’, single best-effort approach had been applied by the Manhattan Project rather than the pluralism actually pursued, it is highly unlikely the atomic bomb would have been produced in time to affect the end of the Second World War.”

Cowan is convinced of the power of rigorous scientific thinking and he wonders aloud about why scientific thinking has been confined to science. Says Cowan, “The scientist know that every time he runs an experiment he will learn something. It’s the learning that allows you to take the next step.”

But the world of politics is different. “No one wants to learn anything. They want to justify what they did. They want to justify what they are doing.”

A few years ago, Cowan became a member of the Moretown Elementary School Board. As a school board member he wanted to know how well the school was functioning. He went to the school principal and suggested a way to measure student achievement. She was interested. She cooperated. And Cowan put together a comprehensive set of measures to evaluate student achievement. Were these students male or female? Was a student coming from a family that qualified for free or reduced lunch? How was a student performing in spelling or math or reading? What about lateness? What about days lost to sickness? As Cowan explained it, everything had a number: test scores, teacher report cards.

Or as Cowan writes in his book: “The final outcome was a basic, annual report that the principal used with the teaching staff as a fundamental tool to direct a consistent quality improvement effort, updated annually.”

The net effect of describing each student carefully and using a range of measures to evaluate each student’s learning was a gain in student performance as compared to other schools in the supervisory union and across the state.

The suddenness and violence of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 jolted Americans like few other recent events. Soon after 9/11, America was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan and our own country seemed not only much less safe but much more violent.  Then there were a number of our long-held beliefs —in a free market economy, in the ultimate worth of our democratic systems — these rock-solid beliefs became much less settled and much more open to challenge.

Today Americans are looking out at their country with profound skepticism.  Few traditional institutions — the free press, the church, the U.S. Congress, our once-great universities — have escaped serious criticism, even censure.

Wavell Cowan’s book comes along at a time of much-needed and serious introspection.  Is Cowan right in asserting that small is now better than large?  Is he right in arguing that we can adopt rigorous scientific thinking to address our difficult problems in education, the economy, health care and the environment?

Whether he is right or wrong on these issues is beside the point because the point is this: Cowan is raising critical questions that we dare not ignore.

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