On science in an “era of shouters”Yurii Kostiuchenko explains how education will help us survive in an environment of growing threats
Have you noticed that science is currently talked about much more than, say, four years ago? This is kind of a positive and hopeful field. Any news about a Ukrainian scientist, especially a young one who has won somewhere or invented something, will receive thousands of likes. At the same time, we have had increasing numbers of festivals, lectures, quests and even parties where science is popularized, more and more books on how our brain and intestines work, popular physics books by Stephen Hawking get translated and sell well, and this list of successes is far from complete.
For instance, Den’s readers enjoy the columns authored by Yurii Kostiuchenko, who does research in the fields of satellite observations, geoinformatics and statistics, and is an expert on security and risk. Kostiuchenko is also a leading researcher at the Earth Science Aerospace Research Center of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) of Ukraine’s Institute of Geological Science, and executive secretary of the NAS of Ukraine Presidium’s System Analysis Committee; he cooperates with the InformNapalm volunteer community, which has done a lot to prove to the world the Russian aggression in Ukraine, in particular, by using scientific techniques.
People do listen to the scientists. For example, sociologist Yevhen Holovakha recently said in an interview with The Day that, according to studies done by the NAS of Ukraine’s Institute of Sociology, the scientific community was among few institutions trusted by the majority or the absolute majority of Ukrainians (it was accompanied in that category by volunteers, churches, and the military). This became a starting point of our interview with Kostiuchenko. We prepared several pages worth of long questions, but had to push them to the side in the first minutes of the conversation. Given the fact that there are so many self-styled “science experts” at present, we began with the fundamental issue: what science actually is and why society needs it.
WHO AND HOW WE TRUST
“When it comes to trust in science, firstly, any such indicators should be considered dynamically and in the context, in particular, in the long term and in the global context. This is because what is happening right now reflects global processes one way or another. And if we look at what is happening in the world, then there are very interesting trends out there that are not fully clear yet and which it makes sense to look closely at.
“In the 1940s and 1950s or so, a large degree of trust in government and social institutions could be observed in the world. Then it began to decrease, and the decline lasted into the mid-1960s or so, until it reached quite low values. Then we had the humanities revolution of 1968. After that, trust in most government institutions stayed at a rather low level in democratic societies. This applied to parliaments as well as presidents, security services as well as the military. As for social institutions, their standing also took a bit of damage, but it was nothing major. The only institutions that kept their standing intact then were, for some reason, big business corporations.
“Then there was a slight rebound of trust, and starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a sharp loss of trust in all government and social institutions without exception began. So, we are no exception. What we are currently observing in our society, that is, the low trust in all government and social institutions, is part of the normal world process.”
WHY INNOVATION IS NOT ABOUT SCIENCE
“In modern society, science is a social institution aimed at collective search for truth. This search is based, after all, on the conviction that truth exists. For this purpose, an institutionalized team selects a number of exploratory tools. Actually, it has a name: scientific methodology and a set of methods. This is what scientific activity is about.
Photo by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day
“All that is built on this, like techniques, algorithms, technologies, is a different thing, called scientific and technical activity. It involves the development of a set of tools for obtaining, processing, interpreting various types of data in order to solve some specific tasks and obtain some technological results. Doing this requires interaction with the industrial environment. When people require that broadly-understood science provide certain applied results, one must understand that this is not about ‘pure science,’ but rather about scientific and technological activity. And when it comes to innovations and startups, this is not about science at all, but rather about business, the development of tools for profit-making in a particular socio-economic environment.”
ABOUT DILETTANTES WHO HAVE MADE WAY FOR SHOUTERS
“For society, science points to the important difference between what I would call fact, opinion, and knowledge. In science, this is called the nature of proof. What transforms data into facts and what of these facts are proofs? How to use these proofs to establish a position and what position is (and is not) knowledge?
“A few years ago it was fashionable to say that the era of dilettantes had come: ‘We are surrounded by dilettantes who babble something, and no one can distinguish their opinions from genuine expert knowledge.’ I think this ‘era of dilettantes’ quickly ended, but they have ‘cleared’ the information field from expert knowledge. Indeed, today it is difficult to distinguish a mere individual opinion from expert knowledge which is based on systematic education, experience, and skills. Dilettantes could not hold their ground and fell victims to the next generation of opinion leaders, as an era of noisy shouters has come, and the latter just come forward, showcase some picture and say: ‘Aha! Here it is, look, it is a fact.’ But it actually is not. It is actually nothing at all, just some data torn out of context. This is not even dilettantism. Because a dilettante, for all their faults, holds an opinion that is based on a certain position.
It is possible to discuss this position, to prove that it lacks substance or proof. In the other case, however, there is no position, only a demonstration of an individual opinion.
“Therefore, when we talk about now being an era of dilettantes, it is actually an optimistic view. We now have noisy shouters who use the simple skills of distributing bits of data – photos, quotes which they substitute for facts, and facts which they substitute for a position, for knowledge. This is not a catastrophe; it is the new reality in our information environment.”
HOW AN EXPERT OPINION IS SHAPED
“Science should also create an expert consensus for policymakers.
“In general, before making a decision, there should usually be a certain public, media, and expert consensus. Speaking of a public consensus, people can and should influence politicians, but at the same time, one can bring people to the street, and this may be part of a technological process. In other words, depending on institutional development, the public may have various means of influencing political decisions, but at the same time it can be vulnerable to technological influences in various ways itself. As for the media, there are issues there that depend on the position of media owners, there are different points of view, but we need public discussion as part of a social dialog that reduces social vulnerability. Speaking of an expert consensus, this is usually a prerequisite in democratic societies for the adoption of policy decisions that must be systematic.
“When our current war began, many various papers appeared at once. There was fairly significant media attention to it which influenced the adoption of political decisions. But there was no expert consensus for a while, as there were no solid papers that would analyze the situation on the basis of scientific methodology. There are such publications now. Our research group [the Earth Science Aerospace Research Center of the NAS of Ukraine. – Ed.] alone has published six papers that cite over a dozen documents that appeared around the world in the first two years of the conflict. They offer analysis of the course of the conflict, analysis of losses sustained, the number of citizens involved, etc., using the standard scientific methodology, and it has influenced the expert consensus. This has thoroughly proved what kind of a conflict is going on. Despite the fact that the Russians declared it a ‘civil war’ and have continued to insist on the term, our research has clearly shown that we are dealing here with aggression, a specific type of interstate conflict.
“That is, there is an expert consensus here that allows the Western coalition to continue to impose sanctions, despite a rather powerful pro-Russian propaganda pressure exerted through traditional and social media.”
ON THE POPULARIZATION OF SCIENCE
“Undeniably, pop science is a global trend. This is part of what is called scientific communication, and it is a very diverse and useful field, because science in this country has always been a government institution, but it must be a social one. And speaking of these festivals and lectures, this kind of interaction is characteristic precisely for social institutions.
“In addition, we always complain that there are no young people in our science. On the one hand, this is true, but on the other hand, it is a manifestation of some misunderstanding of the structure and dynamics of the modern scientific community. In modern science, in particular, there are two trends. For example, modern science has a very strange demographic profile globally. Young people enter science, they come there, get certain skills, develop a few tools, usually of applied nature, defend their theses, and go on to take up management, business or manufacturing jobs. It is more or less mature scientists who stay, and there is very high competition among them.
“We have a slightly different story. Young people come in considerably lower numbers, although they also do come, do something, defend their theses, and go away. And although this is a normal world practice, it may be more critical for us, because we do not have a normal scientific competition. It is also often said that young scientists leave the country. But this probably does not matter. They leave other countries, too. They just do not perceive it in the same way, because there are no borders there. We also have almost no borders, but this causes hysteric fits for some reason. Some 15 years ago, we saw terrible hysteric fits in Estonia, as people were claiming that all of it was upping sticks and leaving. But strangely enough, nothing tragic has happened, and the situation of science there is not bad either. Nothing untoward will happen to us either, because mobility is a normal process. I will say more, we lack social and scientific mobility. Our scientists do not go anywhere, but they have to, because without this we will not be able to develop normally, and instead of the ‘brain drain’ we will have the ‘brain mildew.’
“The second trend that now exists in science is that most programs and projects are interdisciplinary, they are developed in cooperation between individual teams from different institutions. Therefore, the connections between these teams are much stronger than ones between such teams and the leadership of the institutions in which they work. This changes the management paradigm of these institutions and science in general, as well as the concept of scientific communication. It cannot go on like it was 20 or 30 years ago. People have to move around and communicate all the time. We are also not ready for this. For the sake of justice, I will add that we are not alone in it.
“We will have to take into account the current trends and somehow change the paradigm of science management and the concept of scientific communication.”
ABOUT THE MOST PROFITABLE BUSINESS OF OUR TIME
“Due to technological changes, the very structure of the information space has changed. Previously, we had traditional media, such as newspapers, and we knew who was sending messages, but did not know who was receiving them. The readership was some poorly-known general audience. Today, the situation is reversed: thanks to the technology of analyzing large data, we know the readership very well, but we do not always know who is sending messages. We can have an anonymous information dump targeting some group which will definitely respond to it.
“Why to do this? Most money is made these days not by selling ideas, but by transmitting electrical signals through communication channels. This is the principal business that generates much more profits than any other business in the world.
It is tens of times more profitable than global drugs or arms trade, than anything at all. Therefore, it is important to have someone follow a link, forward a particular article, make the maximum number of reposts, etc., as this will bring more profit. Thus, they need a ‘sensation,’ a ‘shock,’ a colorful headline, an emotional photo. Meanwhile, it does not really matter what the text is about.
“All this has the right to exist, but we must be discerning about what we see. Is this a picture, an idea, or a bit of knowledge, after all? And on the basis of this rationalized distinction, we must make decisions that our survival and development depend on.”
ABOUT INFORMATION AS A WEAPON
“Spreading fake information, besides being just a funny thing inherent in the realities of the modern communicative environment, is also a kind of psychological weapon. This is used to detect epidemic information dissemination channels. Firstly, we dump certain types of messages, see what channels they circulate through and what laws are applicable to their movement, and then we use these channels for other messages that exert emotional influence, which is already propaganda and a psychological weapon. That is, we do not need to involve our agents of influence, because these channels are already working as an agent network.
“This has worked with us more than once, it works in Western societies as well, including in the American society. This is how enmity, disbelief, hysteria spread.
“It is impossible to completely protect ourselves against information weapons. You see, cyber attacks are totally simple and very cheap. This weapon exists and will go on existing. We need to understand that we will live in an environment of growing threats. This is normal. We will not be able to live in a sterile environment, including its information aspects. And we cannot get protected from every single fake. The real question is how we will deal with it, whether we will spread it and whether we understand the consequences of doing so.”