Jiva Technology

Carl Sagan and the study of Science

As well as being a gifted scientist in his own right, Carl Sagan was a brilliant and enthusiastic communicator of scientific ideas, perhaps best know to to several generations for his book and TV series, Cosmos.

Sagan also had an almost uncanny way of delivering pithy one-liners that got to the core of an issue, particularly around the way we teach science in our schools and universities. Sagan famously observed, “every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist … then we beat it out of them”

His love of science and the scientific method shone through his work and it was an obvious source of frustration that in the course of “teaching science” we crushed the natural curiosity that’s a pre-requisite for science in the first place. It’s almost a case study in what’s wrong with our education systems.

The prioritisation of exam success leads to the prioritisation of learning what’s needed to pass. Inevitably that reduces science to the passing of a stock of knowledge from the science teacher to the science student.

Exams are a poor vehicle for allowing students to be curious about the world. Of course, if you’re learning a discipline, understanding the basic language that’s involved and building a solid base from which to work are important, but so is the imperative to keep alive a sense of wonder and the creativity and curiosity that is vital to science research.

There are two dangers inherent in the current approach. The first is that for the majority, science becomes something to be avoided; that all the natural joy involved is sucked out of it. At a time when the climate crisis is central to our continued existence, we want the broader population to be both engaged and interested. But there’s an equally important issue for those who stay in science and go on to become researchers and science leaders. If success in science in the early years is predicated on your ability to absorb what others teach, are we getting the brightest and best researchers into research?

Science and scientific advancement has never been more important; it is literally about the only way out of the climate crisis we’ve created for ourselves, we need new ideas across a range of scientific disciplines and we need them fast. That means we need to find a way to maintain the excitement and curiosity that scientific endeavour naturally spur. Its fascinating to see that EdX is launching a virtual lab environment, LabXchange. The ability to perform virtual experiments removes concerns about cost and safety, but retains the excitement of discovery. It could form the basis of a different style of science education.

Let’s hope that Sagan’s dream comes true and we stop beating it our of the next generation of natural-born scientists.

Net Zero Targets

On the 24th September 2019, the news cycle in the UK was dominated by the decision-making of the UK Supreme Court. It crowded out a piece of news from the Labour Party conference in Brighton with potentially longer term implications. In what should be viewed as a positive move, irrespective of political affiliations, the UK Labour Party acknowledged what is now reasonably well accepted in scientific circles: we need to set our sights higher than the Paris Climate Change Goals. As a global community, we aren’t even on track to meet the Paris goals, but Labour became the first major political party in the world to commit to Net Zero emissions by 2030. They even delivered some ideas as to how they would achieve it.

The response was, as expected, lukewarm. Most commentators saw it as virtue signalling at best and blatant politicking at worst. But it forms part of a growing trend, a move towards getting serious about the threat of climate catastrophe. The Liberal Democrats similarly made concrete proposals, suggesting that the UK appoint a Minister with the power to deliver the changes that are needed. And what’s needed at the moment is some serious muscle behind all the fledgling ideas, not only on emission reduction, but emission removal. Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) technology has serious potential, but if it’s going to be developed fast enough to be useful, it needs government support, either directly or via tax breaks. The reality of our economic system is that companies, the private sector, are responsible for most of the short term innovation that’s going to be needed to rescue us from a watery future. And companies are economic animals, so it makes perfect sense to harness the existing financial infrastructure, possibly via a Green EIS scheme, to turbocharge CDR technology as quickly as possible.

Nature-based approaches, agriculture-based approaches, enhanced mineralization, direct air capture; we’re not short of early stage ideas. What seems to be lacking is the imagination to see a much physically greener landscape and a non-carbon based economic infrastructure. It sounds a lot better that hurricanes and uncontrolled sea-level rise. What seems to be lacking is the leadership necessary to move everyone int he same direction. If ever the phrase, “cometh the hour, cometh the (wo)man” needed to be true, it’s now.

Why everyone should read David Hume.

It would be an understatement to say that the world we live in has become a whole lot more uncertain over the last ten years. A world of certainty and optimism at the end of the last millennium seems to have given way to anxiety, extremes and disruption. The things we thought we could count on seems just that little bit less solid than they once were.

And it isn’t just economic uncertainty and backwash from the global financial crisis; the austerity policies and the extremes of inequality that constitute the repercussions of the events of 2008. The rise of political populism¬† and the search for easy answers grabs the headlines; it appears there’s always space for politicians who claim to have simple answers to complex problems and speak with the dead certainty of those who haven’t quite grasped the problem in the first place. Underlying it all, of course, is the realisation that the climate crisis will fundamentally change everything. Old assumptions are no longer valid and it’s far too soon to form new ones.

So in the midst of this unprecedented complexity, how do you start to navigate through the mist and fog of misinformation and competing claims? It was famously suggested that people have had enough of experts and whilst it might have been more accurate to say, had enough of economic experts, there’s an underlying implication that it’s becoming harder to work out who to trust and who not to trust. Which in uncertain times, where decisions becomes very important, makes it entirely natural to ask yourself, “can I trust what this person is telling me?”

Being faced with a decision of importance and not knowing who or what to rely on is anxiety-inducing at the best of times. During times of uncertainty, that anxiety is multiplied many times over.

Ironically, it may be the very availability in recent years of huge quantities of information that generates some of that anxiety. If we go back to Antiquity, there wasn’t a lot of information available. You pretty much believed what you were told by the local “person of importance”. Or you didn’t have a choice because you were subject to force. This situation carried on to around the early 1600s, when a small group of people became sufficiently prosperous to spend time finding things out. They gradually learnt more and more, but it was still a relatively manageable amount. That came to an end in the 1900s and then really accelerated with the wide availability of information via the Internet. Suddenly, information was everywhere and no one could tell you what was the good stuff and what wasn’t. You had to work it out yourself. Cue anxiety.

There was probably a golden period of about 100 years when we had just enough information and sufficient education to work it out for yourself. Now we have education, but we have too much data. So what to do?

In a situation like this, it’s worthwhile to cast an eye back to the past. Which is both interesting exercise and the point at which we introduce David Hume. One of the great philosophers of his (or any other) age, Hume thought and wrote deeply about the topic of human understanding. And one of his blindingly obvious but deeply insightful observations was on how to tell if what you’re being told is likely to be true. Hume observed that there were two elements to the process. First, does the person or the source have a track record of telling the truth? If they do, you should be more inclined to believe them. It’s why, in the past, people were extremely keen to maintain an upright reputation. It was, quite literally, a superpower. Once lost, there was little that could be done to win it back.

The second part of the process is to judge the statement itself. Is it largely in line with past experience? Does it seem plausible. This may seem a little odd, but remember that it’s not just in recent times that people had been making fantastic discoveries. in the 18th and 19th century, explorers would come back with stories of amazing new species and places, just as researchers of today talk about amazing scientific discoveries. We have no personal experience of this discoveries, we simply gauge that if MIT or Cambridge University make the announcement, its probably true. In other words, the reputation of the institution makes us more likely to believe.

Hume elaborates upon his ideas, but this very simple trick is a remarkably powerful tool in a modern context. Three hundred years after his birth, it’s possible that for David Hume, one Scotland’s most original thinkers, his time has come.

Responsible capitalism

One of the most over used, cliched, phrases you’ll hear in business is, “to leave things in a better shape than when you found them”. Even arms manufacturers usually help themselves sleep at night by talking about being members of the defence industry rather than the destruction industry. A quick stroll through the mission statements of world capitalism will see multiple references to making the world a better place and delighting customers; exploitation is a word that rarely appears and even then, its usually preceded by the word reduce or eliminate. But one of the hardest things for any group of people to do is to look in the mirror and accept things for how they are and not how we would like them to be. The reality is that the trajectory of business over the last 40 years, since the greed is good days of the 1980s, has been almost universally towards lower ethical standards and exploitation in the name of competition. Even the phrase responsible capitalism struggles to get a look in. We’ve moved from co-operative financial institutions to mega-banks, we’ve moved from local football clubs to entertainment brands, we’ve moved from neighbourhood shops to online megastores . Ruthless, winner takes all competition may have made us financially richer, but it has made us culturally poorer. It’s turned the jobs market into a game of winners and losers and the education system that precedes it is going exactly the same way. As business people we have to admit it: far from leaving the world in a better place, we’ve made it far, far worse and it’s time we did something about it. Business is an important part of the social fabric of our societies, not something “on the side”. History’s verdict will be damning if individuals continue to stand on the sidelines and don’t pick up a weapon and join the fight. Business has become an exploiter of natural resources and human resources in the name of generating greater financial resources. That cannot continue; the time to turn away from irresponsible capitalism and turn back towards responsible capitalism is upon us.


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