Keith Burnett at Campaign for Social Science: “The greatest challenge we face is to use our intellects to guide our actions in making the world a better place for us and our fellow human beings.
This is no easy task and its history is littered with false dawns and doctrines. You would have to be blind to the lessons of the past to fail to appreciate the awful impact that delusional ideas have had on mankind. Some of the worst are those meant to save us.
There are some who take this as a warning against intervention at all, who say it can never be done and shouldn’t even be attempted. That the forces of nature blow winds in society that we can never tame. That we are bound to suffer like a small ship in a stormy sea.
They might be right, but it would be the utmost dereliction of academia to give up on this quest. And in any case, I don’t believe it is true. These forces may be there, but there is much we can do, a lot of it deeply practical to make the journey more comfortable and so we even end up in the right port.
Of course, there are those who believe we academics simply don’t care. That scholarship is happiest at a distance from messy, contradictory humanity and prefers in its detached world of conferences and publications. That we are content to analyse rather than heal.
Well I can tell you that my social sciences colleagues at Sheffield are not content in an ivory tower and they never have been. They feel the challenges of our world as keenly as any. And they know if we ever needed understanding, and a vision of what society could be, we need it now.
I am confident they are not alone and, as a scientist all my life, it has become apparent to me that, to translate insights into change, we must frequently overcome barriers of perception and culture, of politics and prejudice. Our great challenges are not only technical but matters of education and economics. Our barriers those of opportunity, power and purpose.
If we want solutions to reach those who desperately need them, we must understand how to take the word and make it flesh. Ideas alone are not enough, they come to life through people. They need money, armies of changed opinion.
If we don’t do this work, the risk is truly terrible – that the armies and the power, the public opinion and votes, will be led by ignorance and profit. As the ancient Greeks knew, a demos could only function when citizens could grasp the consequences of their choices.
Perhaps we had forgotten; thought ‘it can’t happen here’? If so, this year has been a stark reminder of why we dare not be complacent. For who would deny the great political lessons we are almost choking on as we see Brexit evolve from fringe populist movement to a force that is shaking us to pieces? Who will have failed to understand, in the frustrations of Trump, the value of a constitution designed to protect citizens against the ravages of a tyrant?
Why do the social sciences matter? Just look around us. Who would deny the need for new ways to organise our industry and our economy as real incomes fade? Who would deny that we need a society which is able to sensibly regulate against the depredations of the unscrupulous landlord?
Who would deny the need to understand how to better educate and train our youth?
We are engaged in a battle for society, and the fronts are many and difficult. Can we hope to build a society that will look after the stranger in its midst? Is social justice a chimera?
Is there anything to be done?
To this we answer, yes. But we must do more than study, we must find the gears which will ensure what we discover can be absorbed by a society than needs to act with understanding…(More)”