Addressing Challenges: Global Thinking in Tertiary Education from a Science Perspective can Help Drive Positive Change

by Professor Quentin Parker, Associate Dean (Global), Faculty of Science

August 16, 2017

We live in a bewildering interconnected world of technology and massive data sets underpinned by all the major advances that science is delivering at an apparently rapidly accelerating pace. However, it seems our population is increasingly isolated from any real connection to and understanding of the science and technologies that seem to rule our lives to an ever more pervasive degree. We are ever more reliant and dependent on such technologies and the underpinning science (and the data produced) in a way that even a decade or so ago would have seemed ridiculous. Sound and reliable guidance, advice and help in formulating our reactions and choices to the challenges that this bewildering technology rich environment is presenting are sorely needed. Unfortunately, this often seems elusive, contradictory, remote or hard to understand in everyday terms that most people can relate to. It is far easier to just take all this for granted.

Everything is also increasingly global so that coupled with the seemingly liberating power that instant world-wide communication from the twitter-sphere, facebook, blogs and a multitude of on-line fora provide - as accessed by our mobile phones - is the instant accompanying gratification that this gives to the play-station generation. This is often regardless of any underlying information integrity. Opinion and decision making is molded in real-time from sources that are more independent, numerous but perhaps less discriminating, balanced and honest than ever before. Governments, agencies and other actors can potentially influence and adjust opinion in clever ways on multiple levels to effect behaviours, beliefs and actions. How do we deal with this and how to do we gain access to what is really happening in our complex, ever more interconnected world where pseudo-science is digested by the masses while real science and its practical applications influences nearly everything and provides those that can use and manipulate it with enormous power? How do we make rational and objective choices when it is increasingly difficult to know what to believe, who to believe or even to believe in anything at all?

There are now “alternative facts” and “fake news” and a more general disdain for experts and informed opinion as recently displayed by politicians across both sides of the Atlantic Ocean with arguably worrisome results. Proper scientific editorship and journalism of important science advances and the implications and even threats that these may pose has been frequently replaced by opinion and threadbare scrutiny as the printed media retreats under cost pressures where short-cuts and sound bytes become more frequent. Artificial intelligence, gene manipulation, robotics, automation and big data will profoundly change the way we live our lives in the near future but how do we ensure this is done in a way that serves humanity? Overwhelming scientific evidence is rebutted, challenged or given equal weight in the media with other “opinion” in the supposed interest of balance or because of vested interest whether it is climate change or evolution. Global challenges seem ever more serious in terms of our environment, population, health, security (real and cyber) and how they are being transformed at an accelerated rate by the actions of one species.

So what can be done? How can we ensure people are better able to assess information in a way that leads to better choices for society and the planet?

For me the answer to helping with this complex situation is education but also robust science education at every level of society. With this people will be able to make choices and decisions based on their own more critical and reliable scientific interpretation of data, facts and figures upon which such choices are made. This education must progress appropriately from kindergarten to university and from formal education to on-going life-long learning, free of religious, business or political influence as far as is possible.

So what role can the tertiary education sector have to play in formulating effective responses to these myriad modern challenges that our modern world throws up? I believe this is through a broad-based university education but viewed through the prism of science wherever possible. I believe it is the responsibility and role of every university and college to attempt to provide every student with some fundamental insights into the scientific method and how it works. This will help students to become critical, rational and analytic thinkers when confronted with technical detail, conflicting data, statistics and opinion. I believe a grasp of how science works and what science actually is will provide improved capacity to reflect, question and critique the information that flows to them from whatever source in all its complexity and confusion. The ideas of provenance and source reliability needs to be inculcated so that Wikipedia and Google are the not the sole arbiters or selections people make for seeking answers or information to the microcosm of individual choices people are confronted with. Science should be pure it should be true, testable, verifiable and adaptable to technological capabilities, resistant to dogma and open to paradigm shifts as experimental evidence and results dictate while ignorant of origin if the integrity of the science is clear. It needs to be taught by teachers that have a proper science background and at the appropriate level but it also needs to reach students who consider themselves as “non-scientific”.

At HKU we have something called the common core curriculum. This gives students regardless of their background in science, arts, humanities or social science exposure to materials in all these areas. It is compulsory and challenges students while exposing them to opinion and perspectives from other students majoring in diverse areas. Importantly, it also exposes arts students to scientific disciplines and the scientific method in imaginative and innovative ways and at an appropriate level. This is incredibly important and many universities have implemented such an approach.

The world appears at a crossroads with great challenges such as our degrading environment, rapidly growing global population and the ability to deliver better lives for all through sustainable development. For me education and having an informed, scientifically literate population is key. This can help develop mutual understanding of transnational issues where science can provide solutions. Hong Kong is a global hub and gateway while HKU is a world player in tertiary education. I believe universities can play an important role in breaking down barriers and building trust between East and West through shared endeavor in scientific research, education, partnership and exchange. Science education at every level can inform choice, improve understanding of complex science issues and help us address these important challenges not just for now but for the future. This is to ensure the rapid changes that are coming can be positive and help rather than hinder the human race.

Recommended reading: The Demon-Haunted World – Science as a candle in the dark by Carl Sagan – ISBN 0-345-40946-9