Anyone who devotes his life to scientific research and its achievements will today struggle with a notion which has its origins in philosophy, whose home discipline however has never been able to determine exactly what it refers to: the notion of “truth”. For the sciences teach us the dynamics of a constant questioning of the status quo of our own intellectual solidity and the never-ending critical reflection of our present thinking, knowledge and opinion. There is little space for eternally fixed and unchanging truths.
This development finds a remarkable correspondence in the political space, as Karl Popper pointed out prominently: The detachment from claims of an absolute scientific truth reveals astonishing parallels to the social dynamics of ruling and the legitimation of political power. Like scientific research, the political decision-making process is in a permanent repair mode, in which its protagonists are being constantly questioned and challenged, such that the path towards real progress runs through the recurring correction of wrong decisions. Just as science has given up its claim for absolute knowledge and truth and our views and knowledge about nature get repeatedly corrected and expanded which ultimately defined an historically unprecedented dynamics of progress, so have open, anti-autocratic and democratic societies of the 20th and 21 century been able to continuously correct political mistakes and accidents thus fostering an equally unparalleled development of social growth and prosperity.
The parallels between these both processes constitute no historical coincidence. A main characteristic of the most highly developed and economically most successful societies in history is that those allowed and actively supported the free flow of ideas and the unlimited endeavor of scientific research. On the other hand, it was the natural sciences, which, at the latest with the European Enlightenment, undermined the claims of power by the authoritarian regimes, who had often invoked higher principles in justifying their ruling. If God no longer ruled nature, how could his advocates appeal to him for their own claims for leadership? Since the scientific revolution in the early 16th century, European societies and their North American offshoots have placed themselves at the forefront of scientific and thus social progress. Academic freedom has since been a cornerstone of prospering modern societies. Independent research, fear-free teaching and learning, and the free flow of ideas in open dialogues serve not only the fostering of scientific knowledge, but also societies’ overall social development and the general welfare.
It is thus a very bad sign when those who subscribe the most to this flow are restrained in their thinking, searching and acting. Authoritarian leaders are particularly keen to control scientists (next to artists, writers and other nonconformists, and, of course, political opponents). “Nothing in the world is as much feared as the influence of people who are intellectually independent” (Albert Einstein). And if scientists are even persecuted, arrested and imprisoned, it should be crystal clear: the open society and the democratic state, and thus economic prosperity, are in acute danger. The scientists can be seen the canaries in the coal mine of political development.
In almost exemplary purity, we can observe such a development in Turkey today. Since the summer thousands of professors and lecturers have been suspended, universities closed, deans overthrown, scientists having their travel permits withdrawn. In short, we are currently experiencing a massive reduction of academic freedom in Turkey. Only last week the Turkish government initiated an arrest wave against more than a hundred scientists (source: the state news agency Anadolu). They are accused of supporting a terrorist organization, specifically being linked to the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen. It is always the same lyre in Erdogan’s repressive machine. We know it all too well by now.
Scientists worldwide are called upon to carefully listen, to diligently look, and to strongly express their fundamental opposition to the Turkish intimidation of scientists and restrictions of their intellectual liberties (and, of course, to the oppression of anybody’s freedom). And the Turkish government and decision-makers themselves should know themselves that they are providing a very bad service to their country and its people. The Germans have learnt this the hard way. Mass dismissals and the harassment of scientists have a horrendous predecessor in their country. In the 1930s, German universities lost almost a third of their teaching staff, including Nobel Prize winners such as the physicists Albert Einstein (whose relativity theory, according to the Nazis, was “Jewish physics”) and Gustav Hertz, as well as the chemist Fritz Haber. Social research as well as psychoanalysis according to Sigmund Freud were extinguished. Göttingen had been regarded as a mecca of science, a world center for mathematics, and it took the Nazis the smaller part of two years to completely destroy this status. All this ended up with a massive emigration wave of German scientists from 1933 onwards, which had a profound and long-term effect on the development of science in Germany. Historians even speak of a “spiritual decapitation of Germany” or “dismantling of German science.” Before 1933 the German universities and scientific institutions were regarded the best in the world. The fact that today it is the American sciences that possess that status is also due to the self-destruction of the sciences in Germany by the Nazis. It took the country decades to recover from this. And the pre-eminence that Germany had established for itself in the world of sciences during the first 33 years of the 20th century has never been reached again by the 21st century.
The origin and development of natural sciences has been the decisive factor for the historically unprecedented prosperity creation in the West over the past 400 years. Science formed our present world and continues doing so at an ever increasing rate. The desire to understand natural phenomena has long been transformed into the drive to influence and shape the world we live in, which takes us on an ever-accelerating ride into an increasingly prosperous future. Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, knew this very well when he said:
”In the world, as well as in life, science and technology are the only true leaders of civilization and for (overall) success. To look for a guide outside of science is thoughtlessness, a stupidity, a mistake.”
(This statement is often quoted curtly: “The only true leader in life is science.”)
It remains to be hoped that Erdogan will remember this insight by his predecessor and political role model. If he continues his current policy of intimidation, harassment, and arrest of scientists (and other intellectuals), not only Turkish science and culture, but Turkey as a whole, its economy and welfare and all its people will face years and decades of heavy suffering. If we in Europe and the Western world choose to meet such development with indifference, our own future might turn out equally bleak.