Enlightenment: A Matter of Urgency
- Lectures and events
- Publication Date
- Professor Günter Stock
2015 MacCormick European Lecture
The great societal challenges ahead of us, such as climate change and health, can only be tackled if we are able to combine all of our current knowledge and make this knowledge available in a qualitative and timely fashion. This is where modern Academies in Europe and around the globe can play an important role, to present civil society with options and alternatives based on current scientific knowledge and judgement. This is commonly known as scientific advice but it can be alternatively expressed as modern enlightenment.
Here at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, David Hume, Henry Home, Adam Smith and John Millar produced a radical new way of thinking and, as Smollett once wrote, created a “hotbed of
genius.” As Professor Stock pointed out, what better place to talk about enlightened matters than at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment?
But is enlightenment a finished process or an ongoing project? His view, he said, springs from what Kant said in 1784: “We do not live in an enlightened age, but we are living in an age of
enlightenment”. With that statement, Kant had suggested that enlightenment is a continuous process and not just an era in the history of science and philosophy. This wisdom in describing enlightenment as an ongoing – and perhaps everlasting – process is fascinating, said Professor Stock. Not only that, it is a continuous process that needs to be conducted with urgency.
Historically, the Enlightenment was never a single event in separate countries, but a cross-border, interdependent, decentralised, truly pan-European process that brought a new
philosophy and new mental and behavioural attitudes. Ideas sprouted in different regions, at different paces, and resulted in common values and a common heritage across a huge area.
This remains important to this day, especially in the light of mass new migrations into Europe, as these common values may have to be extended and defended. The existence and
“tolerance” of Parallel-Gesellschaften (societal groups which exist in parallel simultaneously) is not what the European Union should be striving for, Professor Stock insisted. Rather, it should be striving for integration, respect and togetherness, so teaching those values is imperative.
The notion that enlightenment knows no borders is illustrated by Scotland and England, where the common ground among thinkers on both sides of the Tweed – in philosophy, moral and natural science – historically transcended any nationalist-based antipathies they may have had. It was this development of natural sciences that played a major part in the Enlightenment by being behind the creation of what we now know as academies. Clear methodological conviction, empirical proof and clear and proven evidence were the scientific principles behind the foundation of the Royal Society London in 1663. This idea of organised science spread to France, where the Académie des Sciences was created. The same principles were behind the creation earlier by four physicians of the Leopoldina, in a small German city called Schweinfurt in 1652.
But while the natural sciences clearly dominated science in those years, leading to the foundation of many academies, a reorientation towards humanities, and the decision to bring
together all scientific aspects, was the idea of Leibniz. In 1700, he created the Kurfürstlich Brandenburgische Sozietät der Wissenschaften, known later as the Prussian Academy, and
today called the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. “My Academy”, said Professor Stock.
And it was this notion of interdisciplinarity, bringing all disciplines together for scientists to contribute to the welfare of human beings, which inspired the academy of St. Petersburg, and
then of Vienna, and then many others. Academies exist now to stand up for this centuries-old excellence, the methods and means to produce evidence and to ensure that those principles are maintained. In short, Professor Stock argued, to protect and nurture the “inquiring mind.”
But are these principles in any way threatened in Europe today, he asked? He suggested they were, citing the example of his native Germany, where it has now become impossible to create genetically modified organisms, despite the benefits they might bring. This is due to a small group of people who led a movement and attracted the support of NGOs to their hypothetical arguments based on loss of diversity and health risks. These concerns were considered and rejected by nearly all scientists, but their advice was ignored because their evidence was not based on a truly long-term study.
The ban on creating GMOs persists, even though the scientific evidence is now in and no negative impact can be seen; however, in the meantime, the argument has changed from being
science-based to cultural. GMOs have been negatively perceived in society for so long that scientific arguments no longer hold sway. Today, 17 countries in the EU want to follow the
German route. This is the political reality, Professor Stock said, and there are other examples of how, with the lack of clear and proven science, society is equally confused. In Germany, a
survey showed that 8o% of people support renewable energy but are, paradoxically, against paying more for it. The survey also showed that 60 per cent of shoppers buying their meat in discount shops at a low price are against the mass production of meat.
These paradoxes provide a challenge for scientists if they want to truly give scientific advice which can be used, Professor Stock said. But as the survey also revealed, trust in “experts” is
low. So, for academies, their role in regaining this trust is obvious. However, it is no longer good enough for academies simply to assemble new information and technical facts; they must also provide interpretation, put them in context and offer problem-solving options – all in a way that provides the knowledge which overcomes ideology and false hope. This is enlightenment as an ongoing process, but there are new battles to be fought against religious movements, authoritarian states and the movement of post-enlightenment in the US. All these suggest that enlightenment is actually a matter of urgency.
Modern medicine provides an excellent example of the dilemmas we face because of the conflict between progress and ethics, Professor Stock said. Molecular medicine has brought
knowledge of the human genome and opened up many possibilities in terms of treating a range of “dreadful” inherited diseases. There are clear ethical concerns in how these breakthroughs are applied, but knowledge is progressing so fast in this area that pre-emptively taking “go, or no go” decisions would not make sense. Instead, scientists have to lead the way with ‘carefully led” and “constantly-refined” risk-benefit analysis. In such a field of complexity, a moratorium is a must, Professor Stock argued, because it is a shield behind which scientists can extend their knowledge towards the goal of wisdom and the extent to which these new methods should be applied without fixed positions being adopted.
The role of academies, which have a definite obligation to care about those pressing issues, is to try to answer the questions that new technology imposes and then propose conditions and guidelines for how we should proceed for the sake of mankind. Yet although scientific interdisciplinarity is the pathway that will provide the transfer from information and knowledge to wisdom, that still might not be enough to make real progress. The wider public also has to be included, Professor Stock argued, by allowing it to take part with scientists in pragmatic discussions about the implications. What is needed is a new “social contract” with civil society, in whatever form that civil society takes.
But to truly fulfil their role of giving impartial advice, academies must continue to work independently of external influences, uninfluenced by political trends or public sentiments,
particularly those driven by social media. Trust can only return through a sense of independence, quality, excellence and honesty. When academies give advice, Professor Stock said, it must be very clear and transparent and based on facts and solid evidence. It must also be clear where the limits of this solid evidence are and where the educated guesses begin. It should never be forgotten that there are divergent opinions – in the end, minority views could still be proven as the correct interpretations.
With the world becoming ever-more complex, academies must also broaden their mission from pure science to helping to tackle global challenges, such as climate change, migration, poverty and water supplies. Firm beliefs, unbiased guidance and, finally, trust can be created by carefully designed and thoroughly reflected-upon statements produced by academies such as the RSE.
In this context, it is essential that academies are no longer just regional but global. ALLEA, the All European Academies network, began to grasp this from the 1990s when the European Union became more of a societal and political reality. It is now working regionally and within Europe, but also within a global network. Individual scientists are also working across
academies, Professor Stock said. For example, he is now a member of five!
The advantage of an academy network is that it can arrive at a scientific consensus before presenting advice to politicians. This has to be better than national academies giving advice to
conflicting national governments which then try to achieve consensus. The European Commission in Brussels – the target of many lobby groups – prefers this approach because it
brings together the views of thousands of scientists from across the continent. A new phrase – “scientific advice mechanism”, or SAM has been coined to describe it and it is this mechanism that may prove to be the way forward. Seven eminent scientists will constitute a High-Level Group, which will ask for, and receive, advice primarily from our academy consortium, Professor Stock said. When the academies cannot or do not want to respond or engage in certain cases, the Group will be free to search for advice within their own networks and amongst other organisations.
Looking forward, another task that academies have to address is supporting projects which investigate cultural heritage – in relation to subjects such as religion, migration, history and
language – many of which would benefit from stronger pan-European collaboration among scientists and improved funding.
Why is this important, Professor Stock asked? This is probably the best way of successfully bringing European countries together in a union. The Union works best when individual countries accept that they have a shared cultural heritage – a “soul of Europe” – but this identity can be threatened by events such as the current influx of migrants from the Middle East.
But if we accept and welcome the removal of “walls” in Europe – the “eternal” wall in Berlin fell after only 40 years – then it cannot be right that new walls are constructed. What is happening in Syria has the capacity to damage Europe’s cultural identity, but can be avoided by accepting our interdependence with that region, however difficult, and finding new solutions.
In conclusion, Europe has always existed without permanently fixed geographical borders and has always been a space in which common values are the base for otherwise diverse and
far-reaching communities. With this enlightened understanding, our academies are especially suited to promoting responsible and diplomatic science, as well as helping to preserve the
essence of European unity in a rapidly-changing world.
Q: You are absolutely right that enlightenment is an ongoing process. But should moratoriums also be an ongoing process?
A: What moratoriums can be used for is to ask the right questions, to modify processes as we go forward, to adapt as we go along. They should be there to allow us to say no to certain
developments until we have got a clear risk-benefit analysis. But we need to include as many people as we can in this process.
Q: I am interested in when the evidence is not yet definite. One of the things about trust is that scientists should be able to express their true opinions on the assessment of risk, despite any uncertainties or risks that might exist. In Italy, scientists giving their views around the Aquila earthquake were arrested and prosecuted because they failed to predict the earthquake. Should the role of academies be to have it made law that expert assessment is something for which scientists should not be prosecuted?
A: I could not agree more. The protection given to individual scientists is a must and two-fold. First, there has to be quality assurance and then protection for scientists if quality assurance has been done. Scientists sometimes tend to overstretch the knowledge they really have – blurring the lines between evidence and guesswork. That is where institutions come in, to provide that quality assurance. If that is in place, then individual scientists are protected.
Q: At what point should there be a moratorium on commercial control of GM crops and on research into the human genome and genetically modified human beings?
A: It is not yet completely clarified how the commercial considerations in relation to GM crops will develop. We (scientists) were beaten up over this and now the science has been proven, we are beaten up by attitudes. The big discussion in Germany is not about economic but social/cultural attitudes – we just don’t like it. Yet, if we get meat from somewhere like Argentina, we can never be sure how it has been produced. You cannot detect whether it has been modified.
Secondly, one of the major questions about modifying the human genome is in which areas we want to go. It will be a decision of society in which directions we go. In China, experiments are going on and we don’t really know what they are. That is why moratoriums are important. We should never say yes or no, we should search for the evidence within a correct evaluation.
Q: The original Enlightenment was like a priesthood. The scientists were respected and influential. Now, here in Scotland, we have a Government that appears to be immune to scientific advice, unlike in many other parts of Europe. How do we get to the point where we take more notice of that advice?
A: I have been in this business for more than 30 years. One point of discussion is always how to get politicians to listen to advice. My view is that if you give advice, you must know it is advice, not instruction. Sometimes it takes ten years for advice to be accepted. Governments do not fail to accept advice because they are stupid, but because there are factors such as public opinion which they listen to. But in many cases, the advice is rarely forgotten and most of the intelligent ones listen to you. Eventually, the system works.