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Hanns-J. Neubert: Knowledge without literacy is like information without knowledge

Hanns-J. Neubert | 25 August 2009

I like to travel, but I do not like to fly. Not a fear of flying, but being trapped in artificial air for hours and hours, from entering the doors of the airport of departure until stepping out of the destination airport in search of a taxi. Usually a kind of half sleep, or conscious unconsciousness, overwhelms me immediately.

I can block out the seat neighbour, the stewardesses, the captain's greetings and all the unrest around me. But while waiting in the transfer area for the connecting flight, my brains are still highly active. So it happened in Copenhagen airport, where I suddenly became enlightened and recognized that what I had planned to say in my presentations for the conference ‘Towards Knowledge Democracy‘ in Leiden was all wrong.

'Knowledge' was the word that puzzled me. I had constructed my talks around the contribution of knowledge to a better, more democratic society. But history shows that knowledge societies are rarely democratic societies. Instead, they tend to be technocracies. Knowledge alone cannot improve democracy.

I remembered a heated discussion with two of my journalist colleagues from Great Britain and from Sweden during the first EuroScience Open Forum, in 2004 in Stockholm. We complained about the missing literacy of the public, due to poor education. Less-educated readers need ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, whereas the better educated could easily live with the uncertainties of scientific findings.

So for us, literacy seemed to be the tool to handle knowledge and knowledge overflow, with all their uncertainties and contradictions. Politicians, however, still ask for more knowledge and science communication, and force this through the Bologna Process. But although more knowledge might be good for the usefulness of people in industrial environments, it not necessarily good for their personal development and for their ability to make known decisions.

I was happy that my brains cleared up my thoughts in time. Standing in front of the audience the next day, I was happy to meet a quite open and open-minded audience in the session 'Lost in Translation', where the concept of literacy instead of knowledge was put forward, although basically an educational question.

Regarding my basic line entitled 'Promises, Promises', I played the ball back to science when discussing errors and misunderstanding in science reporting. The audience did not complain. On the contrary, I felt that they were happy to have learned something from the real world.

However, the discussion remained a bit academic. There was a nice graph on the blackboard at the end of the seminar, listing mainly the different functions of the media in a democratic society. I missed statements describing the role of the public, the different publics, and the role and duties of science in society.

But mainly I missed concrete proposals to incorporate the public in the knowledge process, and especially to make people more literate. Maybe my expectations have been too high for such an academic congress. Nevertheless, I was happy to meet people willing to change something and willing to be open to acquire new knowledge. One should be satisfied with that. The fact alone that such a congress is nowadays possible is a sign that changes are on the way.

About the author

Hanns-J. Neubert

Hanns-J. Neubert is President of the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations, Strasbo...

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