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Hanns-J. Neubert: When Knowledge Fails

Hanns-J. Neubert | 02 September 2009

1 September 2009, Hamburg, Germany

Going back home by car from the ‘Towards Knowledge Democracy’ conference in Leiden, the many hours of long, slow going in a traffic jam up to the border with Germany gave me the opportunity to think about two simple problems, which were only marginally considered during the conference: ‘values, emotions and knowledge’ and ‘when knowledge flops’.

When values and emotions override knowledge

The car journey from Leiden to Hamburg, a distance of almost 500 kilometres, took us nine hours, creeping from traffic jam to traffic jam. By using the train, it would have been about six hours from door to door.

You do not need to be a scientist to know that travelling by car is a most inconvenient way to span the distance between two cities. From simple budgeting regarding time and money, and considering pollution, the danger of accidents, social costs and the waste of the landscape, the knowledge exists that it is not very wise to take a car to travel longer distances. Also, the knowledge exists that there are better ways of travelling, which save time and provide more comfort.

However, cars have economic value. Their construction maintains workplaces and the industry is an important source of economical wealth, for individual countries and Europe as a whole. Furthermore, cars are emotional, giving their owners the feeling of freedom – even when they are stuck in traffic jams, squashed into uncomfortable, narrow seats. For some owners, they are also a source of pride and potency. But all car drivers take it as a given that they waste valuable time concentrating on the traffic, instead of working, reading or relaxing in the comfortable seat of a train carriage.

Thus, all the knowledge available does not obviously prevent a democracy from taking irrational, even stupid, decisions while investing a good deal of society’s economical and intellectual wealth into dead-end technologies. I know, cars are high-tech machines nowadays, and traffic research is considered as part of a knowledge economy, although it produces more problems than it solves.

So, I come back to my previous blog post, in which I proposed to put literacy at the centre of a congress. I felt that knowledge alone is too closed to be of use in democratic processes. Knowledge is a prerequisite, but does not help in solving the problems of democratic societies.

When knowledge flops

While I was creeping along the freeways of The Netherlands, a funny experience happened with the traffic guidance system. I performed a scientific analysis of the numbers appearing on the big signs over the lanes. Of course, I imagined at first that the numbers were meant to propose a certain speed in order to keep the traffic flowing. But I was obviously wrong. As I was counting, these numbers appeared: 50, 70, 90, and 100. When we reached the border to Germany, the result of my analysis was as follows (100 percent statistical evidence): 50 means ‘Total Stop’, 70 means ‘Stop and Go’, 90 and 100 mean ‘Go Slow’. A funny system.

Despite all the knowledge available to compute such simple mathematical models – compared to the complicated weather or climate models we have – the system obviously fails totally in the experience of an independent and objective observer.

How can we be sure that all the knowledge we have, which all the wise people at the conference want to use in order to push democracy forward, really does work, if we need it? Isn‘t the weak link in all knowledge the engineer, the scientist, the politician, the officer, who are unable to handle the knowledge in order to provide a functioning solution?

Outlook and the Leiden agenda

Although the examples mentioned above are technical, they may show that democratic societies still have a long way to go. That was what I took home from the conference ‘Towards Knowledge Society’ in Leiden.

The discussions at the conference were quite theoretical. Practical examples, like those presented in the second session with Willem Schoonen as chair, in which I presented ‘From Response to Responsibility’, seemed to be of lesser interest. If it remains by this one-off event, I fear that democracy will not proceed.

Knowledge has to be tested. Experiences have to be collected in order to gain literacy. And many things have to be thought through more thoroughly, like this statement in the Leiden Agenda: ‘Some areas of the media ...are becoming more populist than the populists themselves. This is almost always at the cost of analytical depth.’ That is theory. In practice, it is the other way round: because the media cannot pay the costs needed for analytical depth, they become populist.

Recommendation 13 of the Agenda mentions a demand more than 30 years old: ‘Create better conditions for transdisciplinary research.’ This is a good example that theoretical discussions do not change anything, although knowledge and examples are available. Thirty years have been lost, because it is easier to aggregate in conferences only to propose such a recommendation over and over again.

Or Recommendation 18: ‘The media should regard it as their responsibility in a knowledge democracy to report critically from different perspectives.’ Why should they? The media are industries and their prime target is to earn money. If the further development towards a knowledge democracy also means to proceed in the privatisation and capitalisation of the media, then the media will play no further role on the way to a knowledge or literacy society. And, if the media fail as critical companions to a more advanced democracy, it is questionable if theoretical conference discussions can change anything.

Go on, turn theory into practice

However, the Leiden conference ‘Towards Knowledge Democracy’ was a first, important and very necessary step. It was a unique event, showing that politicians and officers in the Government of the Netherlands are seriously in search of bringing democracy forward – an attempt that is missing in most other European countries. I am sure that the organisers will learn from this experience and bring future discussions more down to the ground. The serious will is there, as I experienced during my small talks, and many good examples of knowledge use are also around. A good and promising basis.

About the author

Hanns-J. Neubert

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

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