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.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Deep Freeze Alert

In the last few years, a pair of frogs had chosen the pond behind our house as their annual breeding ground. But there’s not going to be any happy new year for them in 2011. Last December, the pair went into the pond, assuming perhaps they would once again secure their favourite location ahead of spring’s arrival. Unfortunately, with their insensitivity to gradual changes in temperature, the two frogs stayed put in the water as it cooled degree by degree, until they were literally frozen to death.

Are we going to be any better at spotting and dealing with imminent danger? As the civic temperature continues to fall around us, why do the majority of people still look on passively, seemingly unaware that the collective infrastructure, which has taken decades to build up to protect us, is now at risk of disintegration?

Every gauge of the conditions for public wellbeing is showing an alarming drop. Job security is plummeting; the safety net for the vulnerable is lowered and made less effective in cushioning those in freefall; privatized utilities (from energy to railways) deliver less value for much higher charges; all public funding for university teaching (except for a small minority of science subjects) has vanished; the provision of not-for-profit health service is not keeping pace with growing demands; and people seeking to redress unjust treatment are increasingly left to their own impoverished devices.

Perhaps some people don’t yet connect the signs of deterioration with a sense of personal peril. They see and hear about radical changes in the abstract, but think that they would somehow escape unscathed. Others may recognise the threat against them and their communities, but are numbed by the assumption that there is nothing they could do about any of it. What is certain, however, is that if we remain adrift in a state of inaction, life for those of us outside the privileged realm of the corporate elite is going to get very bad indeed.

So while we still have the chance, let’s make this our collective resolution for 2011. We are not to let fear or apathy overwhelm us. Spread the word, sound the alarm, and unite in defence of our common good. It’s time we raise the temperature.