The Rules of the Game for a Knowledge Dialogue
Dame Julia Higgins
The First World Knowledge Dialogue in Crans-Montana in September 2006 was an enormous and courageous experiment, not just for the organisers but also for all the participants. As the scientist in residence I had the challenging job of setting the scene and laying out the “rules of the game” for such a dialogue in an introductory talk. At the time of the meeting I still held my (time-limited) role as Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s Academy of Science and one of the oldest in the world. Founded in 1660 just after the restoration of the monarchy in the UK, the society was an early expression of a revolution in thinking about the natural world, which was sweeping through Europe. This birth of experimental science was expressed in the Royal Society motto “Nullius in verba” – which translates literally as “nothing in words” but means to imply “believe what you see, not simply what you are told”. My use of this motto to introduce my “rules of the game” produced intense irritation in at least one attendee who wrote to me afterwards saying that I had immediately downgraded the potential contributions from the participants from an arts or humanities background for whom words are all important. I did not mean to do this but his reaction was perhaps correct as this revolution in science and the pre-eminent position it gave to experiment rather than opinion is often seen as the beginning of the divergence of science from arts into what a much later author, C.P. Snow called “the two cultures”. However if one reads the history of the subsequent centuries and looks at the literature produced, it is evident that educated men and women expected to be able to engage in both cultures, probably at least until the end of the 20th century. The aim of the WKD is of course to restore that earlier state of communication and continuum of understanding.
The vehicle chosen by the first WKD for developing these processes of communication was to use two overarching themes- “Complexity” and “Origins and migrations of modern humans”. The speakers to the themes had been engaged in pre-meeting discussions – sometimes face to face and sometimes through electronic media. At the meeting itself as well as the main speakers’ presentations, there were a range of short presentations, and extended discussions involving the whole participating audience. The aim was to identify, develop and refine a process for sharing views, a method to aid future discussion and perhaps to begin discussions that might eventually lead to reform of university education. These were certainly not minor aims or limited aspirations and that we did not fully achieve all (or even any) is no more than to be expected in such a new departure.
In my introduction I identified seven crucial rules for the debate and I believe these will stand for future dialogues:
- Listen – all too often we hear but do not listen to what is being said because of our own education and culture;
- Explain yourself clearly- the audience is composed of people with very wide ranging backgrounds, and most likely different from your own;
- Leave your prejudices at the door;
- Avoid jargon;
- Be uncritical of others ideas;
- Be unafraid – carrying debate into someone else’s area of expertise can be very nerve wracking;
- But above all - enjoy the intellectual adventure;
I concluded my introductory remarks by explaining why I became engaged with the WKD. No-one can be blind to the enormous problems facing us in the 21st century – energy requirements, water – too much (floods) too little (drought), food production, health, aging populations. The list is terrifying. Science can identify these global problems and may provide some of the tools for dealing with them, but only society can truly solve them. The open and friendly dialogue between all intellectual capabilities is essential if we are to move forward.