Published: 22:39, November 14, 2021 | Updated: 10:32, November 15, 2021
Scientific literacy can drive positive change, global cooperation
By Quentin Parker

We live in a bewildering interconnected world of technology and massive data sets underpinned by all the major advances that science is delivering at a rapidly accelerating pace. However, it seems our population is increasingly isolated from a real connection to and understanding of the science and technologies that seem to rule our lives to an ever more pervasive degree. We are evermore reliant and dependent on such technologies (just think of our amazing mobile phones that we sometimes still actually use as a phone) and the underpinning science and data produced in a way that even a decade ago would have seemed ridiculous. Sound and reliable guidance, advice and help in formulating our reactions and choices to the challenges 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 worldwide communication from the Twitter-sphere, Facebook (now “Meta”), blogs and a multitude of online forums provide — as accessed by our mobile phones — is the instant accompanying gratification that this gives to the PlayStation generation. This is often regardless of any underlying information integrity issue as the current political instability in the USA is clearly demonstrating where QAnon and anti-vax conspiracies find a rapid and ready audience through social media platforms. We are not immune to this in Hong Kong, where COVID-19 vaccination hesitancy is a serious issue. 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. The real news is described as fake news, and fake news as real news — millions of people are confused and uncertain, while millions more believe fake news itself and see it as true. Reliable, trusted outlets are more important than ever.

How do we deal with this “fake news” explosion that is now so mainstream? How 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 influence nearly everything and provide pathways for the unscrupulous? 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? Who can we trust?

The fact that the Chinese mainland is opening up fuller access to its major research funding programs and promoting international collaboration such as on the amazing Chinese space station is excellent news. It is potentially a game changer for science in Hong Kong and for building trust through scientific collaborations with the bonus that it can bridge political divides

There are also “alternative facts” 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 science journalism of important advances and their implications and even threats that these may pose for humanity have been frequently replaced by opinion and threadbare scrutiny as the printed media, particularly in some Western countries, retreats under cost pressures where shortcuts and sound bites 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 “opinions” in the supposed interest of balance or because of vested interests. This has been the case with climate change in the past, where the clock really is ticking toward catastrophe. 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 — humanity.

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 this complex situation is robust science education at every level of society. With this, people will be able to make intelligent choices and decisions based on their own more critical and reliable scientific interpretation of hard data, “real” facts and figures. Science education must progress appropriately from kindergarten to university and from formal education to ongoing lifelong learning, free of religious, business or undue influence as far as is possible and appropriate.

So what role can the tertiary education sector play in formulating effective responses to these myriad challenges that our modern world throws up, especially in an interconnected global city like Hong Kong and our sister cities like Macao and others in the Greater Bay Area? I believe this should be 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 issues, conflicting data, statistics and opinions. I believe a grasp of how science works and what science actually is will provide improved capacity to reflect, question and critique technical information that flows to them from whatever source in all its complexity and confusion. The ideas of provenance and source reliability need to be inculcated so that Wikipedia and Google are not viewed as the sole arbiters of truth. 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 immune to origin bias if the integrity of the science is clear. It needs to be taught by teachers who have a proper science background and at the appropriate level, but it also needs to reach students who consider themselves as “non-scientific”.

At my university, we have something called the common core curriculum. This gives students regardless of their background in science, arts, humanities, medicine or social science exposure to knowledge that they would not normally encounter within their narrow specialty of study and work. It is compulsory and presents them with the intellectual challenge that comes from exposing them to opinions and perspectives from other students majoring in other disciplines. It also exposes arts students to diverse scientific disciplines and the scientific approach in imaginative and innovative ways and at an appropriate level. This is incredibly important, and many universities have implemented this proven interdisciplinary teaching in some form.

The world is at a crossroads with great challenges such as our seriously degrading environment, continuing political turmoil, worsening wealth gap, and unsustainable population growth. All this challenges our ability to improve the lives of the majority (who remain poor) through sustainable and green development. For me, education and having an informed, scientifically literate population is key. This can help develop a mutual understanding of transnational issues where science can provide a common platform in the search for solutions.

Hong Kong is a global hub and gateway while we are a world player in tertiary education and finance. I believe universities can play a crucial role in breaking down barriers and building trust between East and West through shared partnerships in scientific research, education, and exchanges. The fact that the Chinese mainland is opening up fuller access to its major research funding programs and promoting international collaboration such as on the amazing Chinese space station is excellent news. It is potentially a game changer for science in Hong Kong and for building trust through scientific collaborations with the bonus that it can bridge political divides. 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.

The author is a professor in the Faculty of Science, the director of Laboratory for Space Research, and a member of the Academic Senate of the University of Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.