Sure, I can give you a long speech about the purpose and importance of fundamental research and how it is interesting for the broader public, not to mention that it is where my personal interests are. But it remains a fact that investing into fundamental research is a luxury of societies at a very advanced level. And if I open a newspaper after a day sitting through seminars it tells me the world really has other problems than axion-dilaton coset SL(2,R)/SO(2) 7-branes or similar fun. Sometimes more, sometimes less so. Presently more so.
But hey, as I told you previously, to me science is more than a profession, to me science is a worldview. And thus my interpretation of the problems we are currently facing on a global scale is a lack of scientific method, which has resulted in an erosion of trust in the systems that govern our lives. We are failing to update these systems and their institutions so they be able to deal with our increasingly complex global problems.
Finishing the Scientific Revolution
Science is as old as mankind. We analyze the world we observe to better understand it, and to make our lives more pleasant. The scientific method has proven to be extremely useful to achieve this; this method being nothing but inventing a model for the world based on previous knowledge, and testing how well it works. If it works well or at least better than available models, we call that progress and use it for further examinations. If not, we discard it and look for something better. At least that's the idea. A lot can be said about how this so straight-forwardly sounding manner has worked out during our history in less straight-forward ways, but to say the very least, it has worked tremendously well for the natural sciences.
Science in its organized form has taken off in the 16th and 17th century, and has changed our world dramatically. This period in our history during which we saw a tremendous amount of progress in the fields astronomy, physics, biology, medicine and chemistry is often called the “Scientific Revolution” - a revolution of thought rather than a revolution of governance that kick-started the development of technologies and established scientific research as one of the most important drivers of progress in our societies. We find during this period the names of great thinkers like Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, Bacon, Newton, Franklin and Descartes, to only mention a few.
Today we study as sophisticated areas as neuroscience, nanotechnics, immunology, microbiology or endocrinology. Don't worry if you don't know the latter, I didn't know it either, I Googled it and found it's the study of the glands and hormones of the body. And then there are of course the computer sciences, which are possibly the most impressive outcome of the technological developments altogether and the advancements of computing power itself has had a large impact on the possibilities in scientific research.
I'm not a historian and this isn't an essay about the history of science. I'm just telling you that because this revolution doesn't include the social sciences. Most notably, academic research in the fields that we would today call sociology, politics and economy are still waiting to obtain the attention they deserve. In these areas, the dark middle ages of trial and error in applications have lasted some more centuries, with the situation only slowly changing today. The reason for this is not hard to find. Understanding political or social systems is much more complicated than understanding the motion of planets, since the latter is a system that can very easily be simplified to a model that is computable even by hand. In the political and social sciences, arguments are lead mostly in the narrative, and have for long been detached from what actually was happening in politics. Neither did much of these studies reach the broad public for most of it is not part of the standard school education, as is physics, biology and chemistry.
It is only now, in the 21st century, that the advances have gotten far enough so we begin to understand some aspects of systems as complex as for example our global economy. In fact, the economical system is probably the best investigated case that falls into this category, for there is money to make there. The political system lags behind. This lag is is crucial because it is needed to deal with the progress driven by the natural sciences. What we are running into is a dangerous imbalance in which new technologies change our societies faster than the governing institutions can deal with these changes.
Results from the natural sciences are today very well integrated into our daily lives. Think about architecture, engineering, drug tests, health checks, and numerous investigations behind every single consume item, from your car to canned food.
In the last decades one also finds increasingly more examples for a similar integration of the social sciences. Think about architecture again, but take into account the question what group of people the building will host and what amount of interactivity you want to create. A lot of thought has been put into this for example with PI's building. Or think about city planning in general. Economic modeling too has become quite common, though it is tainted by ideological believes and lacks scientific rigor. And then there are the cases where governments commission models to better understand the outcome of planned regulations, like various forms of carbon taxes. These are all cases where one sees some first glimpse of a development I am sure will speed up rapidly in the coming years: an increasing application of insights from the social sciences to our daily lives, in a more organized manner.
And after four centuries, it is really about time to finish the scientific revolution.
And why is this necessary? It is necessary because we simply are no longer able to deal with the problems we are facing. Just look at the present economic crisis. If you stop for a moment trying to find somebody to blame, then the problem comes down to:
- Lack of understanding how the system works, i.e. studies that would have been necessary are missing.
- Paying more attention to ideology than to scientific argumentation, i.e. failure acknowledge the importance of objectivity.
- Failure of our political system to incorporate knowledge in a timely manner.
You can say the same with regard to the question why climate change is so slow to be addressed. You can say the same about lots of other outstanding problems, may that be the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, water shortages, or even your country's inability to come to any conclusion of how to address coming energy scarcity. These are processes that happen, but they happen excruciatingly slow and are hindered by unnecessary rhetoric and psychological games.
Is it really surprising then that many people have lost trust in what politicians say? Is it really surprising that we are now facing several years of aftermath of a economic crisis because of lacking faith in this system?
The conclusion that I draw from this is that the most important thing we need is a solid basis for arguments, and a way to integrate won insights. We need to improve the systems we are operating in, the systems that are meant to allow us to live together with a minimum amount of friction and a maximum amount of progress.
I neither believe that human behaviour is predictable, nor do I think the goal can be to replace human decisions with 'scientifically correct' decisions - this is plain nonsense. What I think however is possible, and necessary, is to make sure decisions can be reached and incorporated fast and easily. One should make a clear distinction here between opinion and the process to reach and implement a decision from opinions. What I am talking about is to set up the system, based on scientific insights, to provide a better environment for those living within it to pursue individual goals without being hindered by outdated institutions.
Or, in short, make sure the system can correct its own mistakes.
The Lightcone Institute
So that's what the institute is about. It is about bridging the gap between the natural, the social, and the computer sciences to initiate this change. And since it is a change in which the scientific community plays a pivotal role, one can't do it without addressing the problems of the academic system itself. The problems of the academic system are in many ways reflections of the larger problems we see in our societies: We have a system that is hindering progress, and knowledge about this dysfunctionality is not incorporated. The system is outdated and unable to correct itself.
You see the above discussed points reflected in the four pillars of the Institute's research. There is the interdisciplinary research to make these connections between the different areas of science, there is the basic research to provide the fundamental pieces that might be missing, there is researching research to address the role of the scientific community. And then there is the essential public outreach to get the hopefully won insights to where they needs to be. The latter point is meant to include communication to the public, as well as to private, academic, and governmental institutions.
You will find that on the website the areas of research are populated with some possible research topics that fall into these categories, like Social-Ecological Systems, Network Science, or the Future of Scientific Publishing.
As to the operation of the Institute, it is a directed research in that the Institute has a clearly defined mission that studies should be dedicated to. Here are the mission statements:
- The Institute's research is to be beneficial and relevant for society.
- The research is focused on interdisciplinary work between the natural and social sciences, fundamental research, and the sociology of science.
- The Institute aims to strengthen the public outreach of the scientific enterprise and actively communicate its research endeavors.
- The Institute will collaborate closely with political institutions, businesses and academia.
All that's missing is money and people.
“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance to keep pace with the times.”