Broaden your knowledge to help solve the world’s problems

Tuesday 7 May, 2013

Donald Hector

Warrane residents were encouraged to broaden their knowledge beyond their own area of specialisation when they were addressed by the President of The Royal Society of NSW, Dr Donald Hector on Wednesday 17 April, 2013.

The head of the oldest “learned society” in Australia and in the Southern Hemisphere told residents that a breadth of knowledge was particularly important now because future generations would face problems that were “far more serious than those faced by any other generation of humanity”.

“Solutions to the problems I’m referring to are essential if our civilisation is to be sustainable in the long term,” Dr Hector said. “Species loss, climate change, environmental pressures from urbanisation, overstressed water resources, chronic disease, pandemics, destruction of ecosystems and loss of the natural world – the list is a long one.”

Such problems were highly complex and as much about social systems and value systems as they were about technology, he said. This was because most of the key issues facing humanity had deeply entwined values associated with them.

“They can be of all sorts – religious, social, cultural, environmental – but they largely depend on the worldviews of the people engaged in the problem,” Dr Hector said.

For example, where the issue of climate change was concerned, there was an overwhelming body of “rationally-determined, scientific evidence” that suggested the emission of greenhouse gases is having profound effect on the world’s climate.

“Yet the climate-change deniers set all this aside saying that the climate changes anyway,” Dr Hector said. “Well, yes it does – no-one disagrees with that. But even if there is a only a small chance that the scientific evidence is correct, it is totally irrational not to take steps to reduce emissions because of the profound consequences that follow should the scientific evidence be right.

“The discourse becomes emotionally charged because of largely irreconcilable worldviews and vested interests. Scientists need to find new ways to engage and to explain the problem to non-scientists.”

Dr Hector pointed out that the distinguished British civil servant C.P. Snow had realised that intellectual life had polarised to the extent that there were two distinct cultures: one that had formed around the humanities and the other that was based on science. These two groups were finding it more and more difficult to find common ground and to communicate with each another.

“Disturbingly, according to Snow, this was becoming a serious impediment to addressing the major problems in the world,” Dr Hector said. “He was particularly critical of science education in Britain for not preparing non-scientists to understand and accept scientific argument.”

Even in the areas of human knowledge outside science and technology, the concentration of expertise was keeping the “broader populace” at a distance, making it harder for experts to engage with the wider community and driving out the spiritual.

At the same time, post-modernists “or, more accurately anti-modernists,” were seeking to return to the “archaic notions of imagination and emotion”.

“Some of those who have been excluded have become fundamentalists, extremists, or even terrorists,” Dr Hector said.

Meanwhile, wealthy societies were still plagued with inequality and social problems such as drug addiction, homelessness and broken families.

Against this background, scientists and technologists faced a bigger challenge than ever in communicating with people who did not have a scientific background. The situation was far more serious than in Snow’s time because of the critical challenges that the world will be facing over the next century or so.

“There are really only two choices to deal with these: try to resolve them through the application of science and technology in its broadest sense to reduce the impact on the ecosystem; or risk the collapse of our civilisation,” Dr Hector said.

He said he believed that the world needed to return to the “towering figures of the Renaissance” for inspiration, to figures like Petrarch, Galileo, Michelangelo, Dante, all of whom were both humanists and deeply religious people who saw human creation as an embodiment of their faith rather than as a celebration of humanity.

“Today, more than ever, we need ‘Renaissance thinkers’,” he said. “We need to have a lively appreciation of things outside our own professional expertise across the domains of science, art, literature and philosophy.

During his own professional life over the past 40 years, Dr Hector said the people he had admired most and who were generally the most competent were the ones who had a breadth of interest and curiosity across all areas of human learning.

“They are not simply confined to a single area of interest,” he said. “So, my exhortation to you is this: a narrow focus prevents engagement with others. It was not until I was in my mid-fifties, when I did my PhD in the philosophy of engineering, that I realised how exploring other areas of human knowledge and learning gives such a rich insight into other worldviews and different perspectives on issues. My enlightenment came late in life, don’t let yours.”

During question time, when Dr Hector was asked how young people could broaden their knowledge, he congratulated Warrane on the quality of speakers it had featured in its Wednesday-night guest series.

“I looked at your website and saw the very diverse group of people that you have had. To make people aware of these things and to encourage them with a very rich community involvement, I think, is exactly what is needed to learn how to interact with people.

“I think if we all extend our thinking to include and to relate to other people’s views, then I think that is really the only hope that we have.”

Asked if Australians were not adequately educated in the humanities, Dr Hector expressed concern that the balance between the humanities and science had shifted too much towards the humanities. He said often at university level the first terms in Maths and Science were devoted to teaching people what they should have learned in the HSC.

“A very large proportion of science classes in New South Wales are taught by people who have no science qualifications,” he said, “ and that, I think, is very troubling.”

On the question of whether science could settle all the big questions in life, Dr Hector said that he believed that the “big deficiency in science is that it excludes everything else”

“And I think that is a huge deficiency which most competent scientists recognise,” he said.

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