The quest for knowledge

First up, I am going to recommend a book which I am in the process of reading called The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan and it is the history of civilisation and trade geographically from the Middle East rather than from Western Europe. It is absolutely fascinating. I bought the paperback the other day because to be frank, it is one of the rare text dense books which is worth having a hard copy of rather than loading up to your kindle. By the way I need new bookshelves.

With that said, one of my guilty pleasures lately has been reading below the line on Guardian articles regarding the impact of the UK vote to leave the European Union – I will not call this Brexit – I did not much like the term Brangelina either. The Guardian was broadly in favour of rejecting the referendum to leave and it has a bunch of columnists who are ready to write reams on the impact. So far, they have not yet found any benefits although below the line, there are plenty to say “we got more sovereignty”.

Before the vote, I questioned an online interlocutor based in the UK how he was able to convince himself that voting to leave the EU would gain him in democracy since the Head of State was a hereditary monarch and their second chamber was also unelected and part hereditary. Plus, they have that awful first past the post system which is designed for “stability” but means that they get sea changes rather than stable incremental changes. It was a start, he advised me, pitifully.

I’ve tried to understand his argument, particularly in the context of him favouring the so called Norway Solution where you have to comply with a bunch of EU legal instruments, pay into the EU and allow all four pillars of the single market, specifically freedom of movement of labour being the contentious one in the UK at the moment.

You could write reams on the unintended consequences of the UK referendum result – for me one of the fascinating one is that it has pre-empted a change in views across Europe with EU membership currently gaining in favour in countries like Finland where the True Finns party is now desperately trying to shore up support for a referendum in the face of a population which has looked at the UK, looked at their borders and gone, you know what…things could be a whole pile worse.

Within the UK, though, the comments pages of newspapers are a fascinating reflection of the different facets of British society. Even if you choose not do discuss the geographical differences, there are clear differences in understanding the issues. Because I have friends who work in the academic research sector, I happen to have somewhat more of an interest in the impact on research budgets so I tend to read pieces on that. There have been a few lately because grant proposals are being prepared for Horizon 2020 – a huge European research funding program – and uncertainty about the UK’s position in Europe over the next five years – is causing grant applicants grief. Do we apply with UK based researchers even though they might be out before we draw down funding or start the project? The answer is increasingly “wait and see”.

This was forecast pre vote. Like a lot of forecasts, it was written off as fear mongering.

I do not especially want to talk in detail about the impact on science funding, or the impact on jobs or what will or will not happen with immigration and points systems. These are all details. What has struck me most about reading below the line is the absolute certainty of people who cannot accept that voting in favour to leave the European Union has huge costs associated with it. From the ones who point out that the UK pays more into the EU than it gets back but who still can’t work out that if their economy takes a hit, the money won’t be there to finance the science that historically got money from European budgets – and getting funding from UK research budgets has become increasingly difficult.

This kind of certainty worries me sometimes. It is indicative of people who are far too willing to reject other people’s experience in favour of what they know to be true. Very often it is indicative of a closed mind. One of the biggest problems the Remain campaign had was that explaining reality was generally rejected. Even now, as things are starting to rise to the surface in an none too positive way, there is still a strong desire to reject reality in favour of what people know to be true when in fact, what they know to be true is a) untrue and b) based on some misinterpretation and or misunderstanding.

There is some evidence to suggest that there is a correlation between those who left school early and those who voted in favour of exit. One of the things which interested me – and stunned me – about the UK as I was growing up was that it was more or less common and socially acceptable to leave school at what was then O-level stage, or 16 for the most part. People doing A-levels seemed to be sort of special butterflies.

The UK has recently updated its legislation to make sure that young people stay in full time education or some sort of training until 18 now.

Online discussions become heated because a lot of people – particularly and often on the wrong side of a debate – refuse to take a step backwards and ask “could I possibly have gotten this wrong” whereas people on the right side of the debate frequently do, and frequently own their lack of knowledge, and they also demonstrate that they are willing to add to their knowledge.

I suppose this is where I am getting down to the crux of the matter. Where do people learn to step back and question their own knowledge, and where do people engage in certainty so certain that demonstrating to them that they are wrong has no impact?

It seems to me that people who have a greater knowledge are more open to a) adding to that knowledge and b) updating that knowledge than people who have a lesser knowledge. You see this in any debate online although a few generate a lot more heat than others.

If I had one question for the world today, it would be: how do we get people interested in learning more and recognising the limits of their knowledge (and then pushing them back) rather than hiding in their comfort zone of certainty.

It’s not a question of making information and sources available there – this is already done although sorting valid sources from invalid sources is increasingly hard – but it’s something in education and something in media. What is fascinating is that…it works for some people. And it doesn’t work for some people.

How do we get people on a quest for knowledge that changes attitudes and dogma in this way? In my opinion, if the UK is to respond effectively to its decision to leave the European Union, it needs to do this for its population as a whole because it otherwise will not develop the agility to respond to its new place in the world order.

In the meantime, The Silk Roads was number 2 in the UK non-fiction chart last week. That desire for knowledge does already exist. Harnessing it now…that’s the next question.