Our conventional idea of political demonstrations is that either the politically oppressed, people who consider themselves as economic underdogs, or those who commit themselves strongly to a particular politic cause meet in order to express their displeasure about their situation or the state of world. University professors and scientific staff have hitherto less likely been […]
Our conventional idea of political demonstrations is that either the politically oppressed, people who consider themselves as economic underdogs, or those who commit themselves strongly to a particular politic cause meet in order to express their displeasure about their situation or the state of world. University professors and scientific staff have hitherto less likely been part of any of these groups (the one or other of them may have in a left-wing phase of their youth participated in a demonstration against nuclear power stations, the NATO, or capitalism in general).
We should therefore take a mindful look at the call for a “March of Science” in Washington on April 22nd this year. According to its initiators (“scientists and scientific enthusiasts”) this is a “call to support and safeguard the scientific community”. They write: “Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists, and the incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter. It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.”
Following the women, ethnic minorities, and homosexuals right after Donald Trump’s inauguration it is now the scientists who protest against the atrociousness of the new US administration. Why now them? In their majority scientist are male, Caucasian, and heterosexual, so they are hardly personally threatened by Donald Trump and his cohorts. And yet, the new US president managed to first put them in terror and to then raise their voice loudly and audibly. For he undermines what is most important to science: the sincere and unqualified pursuit of truth, the honest commitment to facts, a humility in the amazement of the sublime and sometimes unexplainable in the world, an uncompromising reflexive attitude in an open and transparent discourse, and, finally an unconditional intellectual recognition of the expected consequences of our thinking and action.
All this stands in stark contradiction to the words (and increasingly the deeds) of a US president Donald Trump, “Fake news,” “alternative facts,” and obvious lies, the egomaniacal insistence on the own distorted view of things, rejection (and abridgement) of critical questions, the prohibition of publications for scientists working for government agencies and, in all of this, completely reckless actions without the slightest thought about their consequences. All this is not just intellectually disingenuous, Trump and his spokespeople appear to think and act against any better knowledge. They thereby simply redefine the concept of truth. When governmental officials use a term like “alternative facts” without shame or embarrassment, we have a real problem. It concerns the very fundament of science, democracy, and humanism, and at last of our prosperity. They all meet here. Like those who already protested on January 21st scientists have recognized what is at stake since November 9th 2016. A catastrophic recession of our core values threatens the vision of an open and humane world society. The last time the scientific method itself became a political issue in the Western World was in Germany of the 1930s.
It has again become fashionable to spice criticism of science with unfounded underpinnings, defamations, and slander, all the more so the less justified the criticism is and the less competent the critics are. Populists and opponents of the scientific method such as Donald Trump play the simple game of denying and rejecting unwelcome scientific insights, discrediting and defaming scientists, and ultimately discarding them (e.g. by cutting their funding), for the sole purpose of preaching their own faith, cook their own world view, or to simply pursue their own interests.
Science itself can deal with their lies and “alternative facts” as with its method of open and critical discourse it possesses a very powerful machinery to sort out nonsense. Problems arise when science encounters political, social and economic interests or ideologies, which then seek to denigrate it on the basis of its own openness. The argument then goes as simply as “Look, the scientists do not even agree themselves. How can we trust them?” That disagreement is a strength and not a weakness thus remains hidden. The consequences are doubts about the very integrity of scientific work, and ultimately a world of fact free thinking and acting. An environment in which science is not only ignored but even openly discredited is hardly suitable to tackle the complex problems of today’s world.
We are in desperate need for more instead of less intellectual and ethical integrity today, especially when it comes to dealing with the technological developments from scientific research. What is normality for scientists, namely, that every scientific knowledge is doubted and controversially discussed within the scientific community itself, is a source of confusion for many ordinary citizens and often leads to resignation and a spiritual departure from science. But it is their very mistakes that make science strong. Because only from the awareness that mistakes are allowed arises the intellectual courage to try new things. It is precise that courage which makes science the most powerful method of gaining knowledge about nature as well as ourselves (and as a result improve our living conditions). But for too many people, the dialectical process of the emergence of scientific knowledge, which is often the result of mistakes, is not very credible.
And here the scientists themselves are asked for an extra effort. They must no more stay solely within the boundaries of their communities, within their committees, conferences and symposia. They must not only publish in the relevant scientific journals, but must further present themselves on other channels explaining what is happening in their respective disciplines, e.g. in popular science books, in blogs, in social networks, in newspaper articles, in public lectures, or even in YouTube films. The scientists are obliged to defend their results offensively and fight lies and targeted misinformation. If they are not able to counteract an issue as important as climate change against the lobby of energy and automotive companies (for example, the majority of Texans believe that climate research has an even less real base than astrology), then that means nothing less than a complete communicative failure on their part.
All this includes sending a strong political signal. So why not through a “March for Science”? It would be the first major demonstration for the integrity of science. For this corresponds to a commitment to the very integrity of our thinking and action.
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