Knowledge under attack

By Thierry Courvoisier

(From "Horizons" no. 107, December 2015)

In recent months, the political debate has broadened to encompass hostile positions against the humanities, and more generally against university knowledge. We are now hearing an argument based on the assumption that holders of social science degrees can only contribute feebly to the country's economic development. As the press has quite rightly pointed out, however, the relevant statistics do not show any particular difficulty suffered by such recent graduates.

These attacks leave a bitter taste. By targeting knowledge in a specific domain – in particular the human and social sciences – they easily portray the impression that knowledge is disruptive and that we're better off ignoring these topics than we are mastering them. But there lies a danger within any society that prohibits or cloisters knowledge: that it falls into the hands of people who decide what can and can't be studied. History speaks volumes of how abysmal our judgement can be when it comes to predicting the relevance of a discovery to future developments. Nobody in the 1930s, for example, thought that the theory of general relativity would do any more than tidy up the incoherent world of physics, yet it went on to underpin the geolocation system that we call GPS.

What's all the more surprising is that the authors of these attacks are often the same who argue that every person is their own free arbiter and that the 'market' decides better than any regulatory mechanism. Despite not sharing this opinion, I would have at least thought that those who move in free-market circles would also encourage the free choice of what to learn and study.

If we are to solve society's current problems – energy, public health, biodiversity and climate change, to name but a few emerging challenges – knowledge will have to come from all domains, including the human and social sciences. Of course, the solutions will be based on principles emanating from physics, chemistry, geology, biology, medicine and engineering, but at the same time there will equally be the need to radically transform the way in which our societies work. These transformations will only be harmonious if they are conducted on the basis of an in-depth knowledge of the psychological reactions of the inhabitants of our planet, as well as of economic mechanisms and social phenomena. Should we want to progress towards solutions that allow for the untroubled survival of our civilisations – if such a goal can be achieved at all – then we must ensure that the debate encompasses more contributions from the human and social sciences.

Thierry Courvoisier is a professor in astrophysics at the University of Geneva and the outgoing President of the Swiss Academies.