Truth, skepticism and opportunity in 4IR

by Dr. Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian,
Ph.D. Department of Communication. University of Johannesburg

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) with its emergence of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing or robotics and the general fusion of what we have traditionally thought of as the separate realms of the digital and organic is frequently met with awe and skepticism.

Central among concerns is the idea that ‘truth’ has never been more compromised. News of fake news and doubts around the legitimacy of sources or the underlying motives of those who manipulate information is a point of consternation. Yet was truth ever really more accessible to us than now or any less skewed? Whose truth were journalists telling during apartheid in South Africa? And by contrast, what social injustices are being exposed by cell phone recordings of police in the United States today? Maybe it is not so much the technologies we have at our disposal, then, but the way in which we engage and communicate that determines the reliability of truth and communication in this era.

Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-53239123

One way to engage is to draw on our individual capacity to evaluate information. By this is meant avoiding herd mentality or blind imitation and instead probing and questioning, challenging and researching everything from news to scientific data. But the search for truth is not only an individual endeavor. Lessons drawn from the global Covid19 response show that besides accuracy, two vital components of successful communication are meaning making and empathy, both of which depend on our ability to relate to others. There is a collective dimension to considering a diversity of perspectives and experiences. So, evaluating the vast amounts of sometimes paradoxical information available requires both independent thinking and collaborative faculties.

Collaboration, however, has not been systemically pronounced from one industrial revolution to the next. Influenced, in part, by a Hobbesian perspective, we still largely define how we relate to others in terms of competing interests and fundamental distrust. We think of our affairs as incompatible with those of others and we subsequently organize social life as a contest. This shapes not only every aspect of our democratic processes (particularly in the West) but also our academic debates, journalistic routines and our legal system. As a result, any possibility of a collective search for truth is sidelined by partisan posturing and the relentless pursuit of winning an argument or case at all costs. What this produces, at best, is a narrow, reductionist perception of reality.

Yet a different way of relating to others is conceivable. Since our views are shaped by the way we were raised, by our experiences and our social positions, access to the complete picture or to ‘Truth’ with a capital T can be seen as relative. In this light, collaborating with people who grew up to think differently from us becomes enriching and paramount because it completes our blind spots. By foregrounding our interconnectedness and by collaborating, exchanging and deliberating, we are better positioned to discover a wealth of nuances and complexities. However, this is only possible if we base ethical decision-making in non-partisan collaboration and in joint and participatory consultation.

Source: https://universityofjohannesburg.us/4ir/the-posting-truth-or-post-truth-episode/

Moving away from the premise that our relationships must be characterized by a “war of all against all” and towards the assumption that “I am because we are”, enables us to gain a fuller sense of reality and helps us to transcend false and limiting dichotomies. From within this vantage point, the digital and organic, science and religion and many other seemingly incompatible realms can be seen as complementary and as completing each other rather than separate or competing with each other. In this context and only through collective will, the tools and technologies of 4IR (can) become less of a threat for deception and individual gain and more of an opportunity to enhance quality of life for our planet and the entire human family.

Dr. Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian, Ph.D., is a senior research associate with the University of Johannesburg, a leadership development consultant for UNSSC and an education specialist for UNODC. Leyla regularly lectures and keynotes at fora such as TEDx, the US State Department, and NATO Building Integrity. Her areas of expertise include communication, gender, ethics and governance. She is also a published writer with a particular interest in the normative moral theory of Ubuntu. She serves on the editorial board of two international journals and is a member of the International Association of Media and Communication Research as well as the South African Young Academy of Science. For the Austrian Baha’i Community, she manages the social discourse portfolio of its Office of Public Affairs. Social Media handles: @/lavidaleyla

Personal politics in science communication

Can science communicators be apolitical and effective?

In mid-February famed evolutionary biologist and science communicator Professor Richard Dawkins was once again the centre of a virtual maelstrom, after tweeting that theoretically selective breeding would work for humans. The tweet was met with both unwavering support for Dawkins’ seemingly factual analysis, and outcries over his supposed endorsement of eugenics. A strong dichotomy in opinion typical of most scientific “hot-takes” on social media that is, as John Nerst breaks down on his blog Everything Studies, largely due to cognitive decoupling.

Decoupling is the process of unpacking a question in isolation. To quote Nerst, this is “a necessary practice in science which works by isolating variables, teasing out causality, and formalising and operationalising claims into carefully delineated hypotheses”. Like Dawkins, Nerst, and many of my fellow scientists, I am a high-decoupler. However, Nerst stresses that rather than a natural behaviour, decoupling is a learned behaviour ingrained in scientist’s training and that society is overwhelmingly comprised of low-decouplers. Nowhere is this more evident to me than amongst my friends.

For context, nearly all of them come from a humanities background. Their interests, ranging from education to legal philosophy, are about as diverse as their thought patterns and I would be lying if I said I completely understood any of them. All of them are political and outspoken. None of them are high-decouplers. How they see they world confuses me, and how they tackle problems frustrates me. Endlessly. Yet the experience of being a high-decoupler so deeply immersed in a group of low-decouplers has profoundly altered how I approach both my science and science communication.

Several years ago if you had asked me if I believe science is apolitical, the answer would have been a confident yes. This is a common viewpoint amongst many of the most prominent science communicators. However, in my own journey of learning and unlearning I have realised that this particular sect of science communicators share a number of traits with me that I believe plays the largest role in our ability to decouple. We are largely white, heterosexual, cisgendered, and male. In other words, the most represented and glorified demographic in science’s history.

To be apolitical is in itself an act of political privilege, and science does not exist in a vacuum. It has, and always will be, a product of the society in which the experimentation occurs. In 2018 National Geographic dedicated their April edition to exploring the concept of race and the historical role the magazine had played in race relations. In her forward, Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg stated “to rise above the racism of the past, we must acknowledge it”. I firmly believe that this applies not just to race, but to all the cogs and levers of the political machinery that shapes our society. This is because it not only has a historical influence on the scientific establishment, but continues to influence science today. A sentiment that is better conveyed in this editorial of the Annals of Human Genetics on topical ethical issues in the publication of human genetics research.

As a biologist, I still agree with Dawkins’ stance that we cannot view ourselves as separate from the animal kingdom when we are another strand in the web of life. However, I must recognise the privilege of my demographic never having been marginalised or seen as sub-human; something my ancestors routinely inflicted on others. Again quoting Nerst, “to a low-decoupler, high-decouplers’ ability to fence off any threatening implications looks like a lack of empathy for those threatened”. I would take this one step further and say it is far easier to decouple a morally deplorable hypothetical, like the question of selectively breeding human beings, if your ancestors weren’t the subjects of such violent and very real experimentation. The language we choose when talking about scientific concepts with a violent history influences how our audience connects and interprets our message. I believe high-decouplers like Dawkins, who fail to acknowledge how their position of both historical and contemporary privilege allows them to perceive science as apolitical, alienate the public.

Science communication can only be effective when we connect with our audience. This is not to say that we can only communicate with those who share a similar political alignment. Rather, when framing our message we must be mindful of how differing political standpoints influence how the message will be received. In order to connect we need to understand the personal politics of ourselves and our audience, and this requires us to introspect the political machinery that has shaped what we believe can be decoupled.