“Women and men were not made to live like beasts but to serve virtue and knowledge.”
This is a rough translation of one of the most famous of Dante’s Divine Comedy tercets which Professor Giorgio Parisi, Physics Nobel Laureate 2021, quoted during his speech titled “The Value of Science”.
The talk, organised jointly by ICTP and SISSA, took place on Friday 22 October in the main hall of SISSA in via Beirut, where a full room welcomed Parisi with an enthusiastic standing ovation. The attendees, plus more than 1000 people watching remotely, listened carefully to the words of the Nobel Prize winner.
With the verses of the renowned Italian medieval poet, Professor Parisi wanted to express the primary drive that pushes scientists to do their job. It is known, in fact, that an advancement in pure science brings with it many practical applications potentially beneficial for society: “It is not possible to think of technological development without advancement in pure sciences,” claims Parisi but, often, that is not what leads scientists towards these achievements. Their effort is primarily driven by the pleasure to pursue knowledge.
“Science is like a puzzle. A collective endeavor which needs cooperation. And I think that for most of the scientists it should be amusing to solve the puzzle,” says Parisi. Scientists, therefore, are in a privileged position. Society has become more and more dependent on their work, and in this way they receive the necessary financing to do something they largely enjoy.
By virtue of this connection with the wider community, however, responsibility arises: “Society does not care if scientists amuse themselves or not,” explains the professor. Experts have to be aware of their social role and they need to build a relationship of trust with the rest of the population. In this regard, Parisi expresses particular concern about the current situation: “Prestige and trust in science are decreasing. There are anti-scientific tendencies which have a certain weight in our society.” And he underlines a paradox: “These kinds of anti-scientific behaviours diffuse together with the consumption of very high-tech products. Having a smartphone, an incredible condensate of technology, does not forbid people to make anti-scientific statements.”
Parisi analyses the reasons behind these issues: “If you want to fight something, you have to understand the deep roots,” and he explains how part of the responsibility lies with the specialists themselves when they relate to the broader public: “Scientists tend to be arrogant, they do not show the proofs, they ask for unconditional trust. They present science as an absolute knowledge in respect to other types of knowledge that can be discussed, and this happens also when there are scientific positions that are not completely sure.”
For Parisi, when experts talk to the public, they seek for support and in doing so they do not admit their limits, and this is one of the causes of the rise of anti-scientific beliefs. When experts present their work, “They cut all the intermediate processes and science appears like wizardry. But if science is perceived as pseudo-wizardry, why not choose to believe in other kinds of wizardry?”
Parisi thinks science has to be defended and supported not only for its practical application, but also for its cultural value. “Science and culture are not two separate things, but two faces of the same medal,” he explains. He points out that we should give a particle accelerator, for example, the same value we attribute to a painting or a sculpture. Before thinking of it as a machine through which we could reach technological advancements, it is a cultural product aimed at expanding our comprehension of nature.
“If we need to present science as culture,” he continues, “we need to help the population understand how science is done, how consensus is formed. Many times I see people who say: ‘there is one paper that says something.’ But one paper is not the response of science, which is a collective endeavor. Formation of consensus is a democratic way between people who understand science.”
Parisi outlines the causes for mistrust in the scientific process: “Once upon a time, everyone thought that the future would be better than the present. Now we live in a period of pessimism for the future. We have crises of various natures: the economic crisis, the climate crisis, the end of non-renewable resources, we have lots of wars that have not stopped since World War II, and so on. Trust in progress is no longer valid. Many people think that future generations will live worse than the present ones. I do not think all these fears are founded, even though some of them certainly are, but I think that if we use science we can stop them.” He continues, “However, once, science had the merit of the progress, but now it is held responsible for this perceived decline. Maybe it is something that it is not said in an explicit way, but it is part of the mood.”
To stop this trend is not easy, Parisi explains, but to change the perception of science we must start with the way it is taught in school: “Science is presented as an accomplished fact, but is instead a trajectory. It is the act of doing science that is important. You have to teach the children to do discovery by themselves. To discover something by yourself is one thousand times more valuable than if someone else teaches you.”
And, again, the role of the scientists in this domain is central, according to Parisi: “Certainly, part of these duties rests with politicians, but if scientists themselves do not push for a change in the teaching of science, in having more museums, if they do not push to change the way science is presented to the public in such a way that the public can follow in a clear way, if they do not push for a non-magic presentation of science, if they do not do all these things, certainly no one else will do. So, I think, as scientists, we have a huge responsibility. Not only to go on with science, to move it in the direction to do something useful, but we also have to move in these other directions, and if these things do not happen, we cannot say that it is not our fault.”