By Pietro Paganini
Once again, reason and science are being obscured by the ideologies and magical thinking that fuel populism and authoritarianism, but weaken innovation and the coexistence of free citizens.
The scientific method favours the maturing of ideas into knowledge, bringing more innovation and prosperity and reinforcing the individual freedoms on which it is based. The scientific method – the exercising of the critical sense in order to understand the facts – and ideas are therefore two key variables for the production and dissemination of knowledge. The scientific method without ideas serves little purpose; and so conversely ideas without the tool of science not only serve little purpose, but can also be very dangerous. This is precisely what we are witnessing during this complex chapter of history: a proliferation of ideas devoid of any scientific validation. Namely, they are devoid of attention to experimental results.
Without knowledge we evolve much more slowly. Rules separated from the method of experimentation work counter to human liberty, as we retreat into ourselves rather than open up. Bye Bye Open Society.
This is not just a European problem. Around the world, too many people reject science because they are afraid of confronting complexity with the slow, structured work of the experimental method. They prefer to entrust themselves to the magic formulae of contemporary wizardry, in the form of resurgent authoritarianism and populism. The illusion of being able to solve problems quickly and without the disputes of the democratic process may reassure insecure and anxious citizens at first, but inevitably remains an illusion which, when finally revealed, causes them to regress into ever deeper disillusionment.
Is it a new obscurantism? Yes, perhaps we are returning, as happens cyclically, to a dark period of history. Instead of reason, there is a preference for the short cuts of promises that evoke an ideal world, in contrast to the reality of things. In practise it is a total rejection of the experimental method which manifests itself in many of the realms of human action, including science itself, the market, work and above all politics.
There is no longer any debate worthy of the name. Paradoxically, in the age of social media, with its “democratization of discourse,” spaces for discussion have shrunk. Instead of opening discussion to all sides, social media merely provide the illusion of a new ‘agora’ of public debate while actually providing spaces for the affirmation of reassuring truths. Research on the subject reveals that within the social networks, prejudices are growing stronger and the distance between people are multiplying exponentially. The critical faculty is left to languish.
At the same time, opportunities for democratic conflict are disappearing. The reasons are many. The first is undoubtedly the complexity of the problems that we are experiencing (automation, AI, genetics, etc.) in a historic period of change as fast as it is difficult. Whilst the number of interlocutors with whom we can have a discussion is multiplying and demanding involvement, globalisation has become a byword for elitist conformism and insularity, removing those who wield authority ever further from individual citizens.
Looking around we see that in addition to parliaments, international institutions and other traditional places of public debate, like the UN, WHO, G20, and so on, are simply not working. Again, this means there can be no effective response to confront the irrational. Thus companies in the food or environmental sector succumb to the emotive impositions of sorcerers of every kind, for fear of losing the consumer (the commercial obsession for “free” labels is just one example).
It is said that consumers are increasingly informed and demanding. But is this true? Where do they find the information? Do they know how to process it? Or are they only informed about what others want them to believe and demand only what is convenient for the large organisations, or for the elite and their clientele groups? Meanwhile “men of science” (more in name than fact) use the scientific method not as a critical tool for advancing knowledge through verification or falsification, but as a confirmatory tool for propaganda in favour of existing regulations around which the pseudo-scientific communities and power interests are based.
The trend applies to the natural as well as social sciences. This is how it is possible to explain two contrasting mistakes. On the one hand, there is the ideological sectarianism of many scientists who decide to contribute to politics. They promote fixed and reassuring ideas, while denying anything that could cast doubt on the results of living science. On the other, there’s the political disengagement of many scientists who separate scientific activity from daily reality, giving up on solving the problems of coexistence and social integration, which as a result remain in the hands of petty politicians.
What can we do? Above all, we need to take a renewed interest in the conditions of society. Stimulate the debate promoting the experimental method, starting in schools (where it is often absent for cultural reasons, including religion and ideology). We need to involve ourselves in the public debate, showing how we can apply the scientific method for the common good. We need to find and connect ourselves publicly with everyone who wants to do the same. And we need to remind our fellows and ourselves that the rhythms and substance of real life are so very different from those of media quizzes or the virtual world.
These are the duties of everyone who believes in the liberal method, including its political and cultural aspects. They are essential for catalysing the democratic coexistence of responsible, well-informed citizens. If we don’t commit now, we risk being swallowed up by the darkness.
Pietro Paganini, is an Adjunct Professor at Temple University of Philadelphia and at John Cabot University in Rome, as well as Curiosity Officer at Competere.eu – policies for sustainable development. He is a classical Liberal. Full bio.