Universities and Science

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Free thought and freedom of speech are the very backbones of democracy. In a well-functioning democracy, free thought and speech are not only the prerogatives of a free press. Much free thinking and expression takes place at universities. There are four preconditions for this: 1) Freedom in formulating research agenda, 2) Sufficient funds to pay for research, 3) Job security for the researchers even if they speak up against their source(s) of funding, 4) That research topics, debates or results are never prematurely dismissed or rejected due to religion, politics or political correctness.

What Is science?

Science is a particular kind of process, a way of working that accumulates knowledge about the world. Science does this by constantly positing new hypotheses and attempting to disprove them. This is called "falsification". To falsify a hypothesis means to demonstrate that the hypothesis is wrong. All science is based on hypotheses that are formulated in ways which make it possible to falsify them; to prove them wrong. Additionally, attempts at falsification must be reproducible so that other scientists, not just the person formulating the hypothesis can corroborate them.

For example: the claim that "all swans are white" is a hypothesis that is crafted in a way which makes it possible to test it and to falsify it. If anyone finds just one single swan of another colour than white, the hypothesis has been proven to be false. Additionally, as long as nobody had seen a swan of a different colour, the hypothesis could be tested again and again. But as soon as the first black swan has been discovered, the hypothesis is falsified; it has been shown to be false.

Examples of non-falsifiable hypotheses could be: "God created the Universe" or "Cake is good." It is not possible by any kind of scientific method or evidence to prove either one of these hypotheses right or wrong. God is by definition impossible to test, and the hypothesis "God did not create the Universe" would be equally impossible to falsify. Whether cake is good or not depends on what one means by "good", and until that has been defined the hypothesis is non-falsifiable.

In science, scientists always propose hypotheses that can be falsified. Then they do whatever is in their power to show that the hypothesis is wrong. If one cannot do that, if all attempts at proving the hypothesis wrong fail, then the hypothesis is considered scientifically true. Any scientifically true hypothesis is called a scientific theory.

The difference between science and religion

In science, to put it briefly, one constantly looks for evidence that can prove one's hypothesis to be false. In the sphere of religion--and in many other areas--people constantly look for evidence to prove that their claims are right.

The scientific method is thus the exact opposite of the religious method.

Science at universities

Scientific research is characterized by peer-review. This means that all research results are scrutinized by other researchers. When a research project is completed, the researchers write an article about their results. The article is submitted to a scientific journal, where researchers and professors in the same field of research, but from other universities, read the article and evaluate whether the work is creditable and whether the results are new and sufficiently relevant to be published. Not until the research results are published in one of these scientific journals, is the research and its results recognized as scientific research. Examples of scientific journals in different areas are Nature, Science, Physical Review, and American Political Science Review.

Science is thus based on a network of cooperation and processes that involve researchers and professors at universities around the world. Universities, that is, at which free, scientific research takes place. If the universities' research results are controlled by anything other than science - such as politics or religion - they will suffer a loss of esteem in international scientific circles. This will lower the researchers' chances of getting their results published and recognized as scientific research. It follows from this that the international research community consists primarily of researchers in countries that are democracies.

Freedom for universities entails, among other things, freedom from political or religious interference in the research agenda and in the results that research is supposed to yield.

Universities and democracy

The scientific world of the universities, like democracy, has a long historical tradition. It grew out of a long process that began in ancient Greece. The long process has evolved the scientific research methods and the journals and other bodies on which science depends. A healthy research community is thus not something that emerges from one day to the next.

Universities and democracy work together in this way and support and secure each other. But this requires that universities communicate their research to the public, so that ordinary citizens understand what is happening in science. Academics have not always excelled in this.

In the North American and to some extent the British research tradition, researchers are, in general, less afraid of making research results popularly intelligible than researchers in continental Europe. For example, the Anglo-Saxon world has a rich tradition of good science journalism.

An example of the interplay between universities and democracy is that rebellion against authoritarian and totalitarian regimes usually starts among university students. There are probably two reasons for this: the first is that students are young people who have not yet started a family and therefore have relatively little to lose or worry about, and more future to fight for. The second is that the whole point of having universities is that people need to think and one cannot encourage people to think while at the same time insisting that they only think in a particular way. If a totalitarian regime wants the benefits that universities can provide - that is, talented scientists and technicians who can solve new types of problems - the regime must also be prepared to accept that students begin to think for themselves and to criticize the regime.


Next chapter: An Educated Population and Culture