Our ability to develop knowledge scientifically, and to relate to the benefits of that knowledge, depends on having a grasp of how knowledge has advanced through critical thinking and objective study. I really puzzle over how we’ll take forward a tradition of critical thinking for the generation coming along behind me.
The challenge will be how to anticipate a generation schooled in an ever-more suspicious attitude to evidence and ambivalence about the authority of accumulated knowledge. It’s an outlook that, while it’s always hung around, hasn’t really put down roots since the early days of the Renaissance. The way suspicion of knowledge presents itself today is in the challenge of cynicism, conspiracy theories and the ‘celebration’ of perception over objective study. This even lacks the cuteness of the early days of relativism, where at least people had some joy, albeit intellectually barren, in escaping the constraints and discipline of acquiring knowledge. Now, the new cohort is to be born into tired, joyless questions about conspiracies and agendas, in other words creating reality out of your prejudices, instead of trying to develop your thinking to account for reality.
This challenge, which will shape the extent to which society can appreciate and relate to science, will also affect our capacity to deal with changes and work out what their likely impact will be. Fortunately – and this is a big fortune - grasping the counterintuitive nature of a scientifically derived study, confounding our own prejudices and perceptions in any way, is liberating. Contrary to the view of the hero of the popular Clooney film, Good Night and Good Luck, we don’t all have to be prisoners of our own experience and prejudices. At certain moments, there is nothing more exciting than discovering you are wrong. In the absence of much else in public life, we need to make sure this liberating capacity isn’t suffocated out of the next generation by lazy cynicism, where everything is different shades of ‘right’.
Tracey Brown is editor of Peer Review and the Acceptance of New Scientific Ideas (download this book (.pdf 469 KB))