Saturday, 22 January 2011

Our Bacon Needs Saving

For anyone keen to debate what key historical dates and figures we should all learn about, one great thinker deserves the most serious consideration – Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, pioneer of experimentalist philosophy, author of ‘The Advancement of Learning’ which inspired the founding of the Royal Society (for science) and the progressive outlook of the Enlightenment movement, and the earliest political figure to champion state-funded research and education.

Born 450 years ago today (22 January 1561), Bacon was a pivotal figure in challenging the dominant attitude of his times which insisted that a few authoritative figures in the establishment (the church, universities, or the royal court) could be left to determine what everyone else must believe. Instead, he put forward the revolutionary idea that knowledge could only be pursued through the continuous questioning, experimenting and reviewing of evidence, involving all who could contribute their testimony and critical reflections to test the robustness of any claim made.

Through his extensive writings, Bacon made the case that dogmatic assertions of ‘facts and figures’ were flawed because they were inherently unreliable. If society would not embrace systematic investigation and experimental testing to build up a body of knowledge which could always be further revised and improved in the light of future evidence, he argued, we would be stuck with dubious beliefs which were at best useless, or at worst dangerously misleading.

Although King James I, whom he loyally served as Chancellor, dismissed his ideas, reformists of subsequent generations followed Bacon’s lead and moved British, European, and ultimately global culture away from the grip of arbitrary dogmas towards a far greater reliance on experimentally grounded learning, supported by a sustained investment of collective resources to raise the quality of research and the accessibility of education.

However, after nearly four centuries of progress, resistance is increasingly being mounted by many who could see their interests served by shielding particular dogmas from empirical criticisms. Plutocrats, who want their profit-making to trump all else, are backing the cut back of public investment in the advancement of objective knowledge. It would leave them to propagate their own claims in defence of how their socially irresponsible actions would have no detrimental impact at all on the environment, people’s health, economic stability, or the vitality of family and community life. As educators are faced with reduced resources to carry out impartial research, while the public have to bear increased burdens to acquire the skills to learn and question, the Baconian maxim of ‘Knowledge is Power’ is being turned on its head – disempower citizens by depriving them of real knowledge.

Political and business leaders who value the cultivation of unbiased knowledge for the wellbeing of society should unite to reverse this trend. More, not less, private funding should be channeled through the state to public research and educational institutions with no strings attached, save the fulfilment by the latter of the commitment to expand our shared knowledge through the most vigorous and objective examination, and learning opportunities open to all regardless of their socio-economic status.

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