For democracy to prosper in the long term, we need more people to reach higher levels of education.
- It's difficult to overstate the impact of technology and artificial intelligence. Smart machines are fundamentally reshaping the economy—indeed, society as a whole.
- Seemingly overnight, they have changed our roles in the workplace, our views of democracy—even our family and personal relationships.
- In my latest book, I argue that we can—and must—rise to this challenge by developing our capacity for "human work," the work that only humans can do: thinking critically, reasoning ethically, interacting interpersonally, and serving others with empathy.
People with higher levels of education are less inclined toward authoritarian political preferences.
Credit: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from the World Values Survey (WVS), 1994–2014.<p>When considering human work and the future of democracy, it's impossible to avoid the rise of authoritarianism throughout the world. According to <a href="https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/authoritarianism/" target="_blank">new research</a> from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the alarming increase of authoritarianism on a global scale can't be considered in isolation.</p><p>The postwar world order was based on the expectation in the West that democracy was spreading throughout the world, country by country, and would eventually become the preferred form of government everywhere. Foreign relations were based on the broad consensus that established democracies should be vigilant and unwavering in offering military and cultural support to emerging democracies. Democracy spread throughout Latin America and even appeared likely to take root in China. The end of the Cold War seemed to confirm the inevitability of democracy's spread, with only a few old-style authoritarian systems left in Cuba, North Korea, and other poor, isolated countries.</p><p>Today, the tide seems to be turning in the opposite direction. Authoritarianism—particularly in the form of populist nationalism—has returned to Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America. China appears resolute in maintaining state control over political and cultural expression. And we now understand clearly that not even the United States and Western Europe are immune from authoritarianism's allure.</p>
Technology of the future is shaped by the questions we ask and the ethical decisions we make today.
- Robots (from the Czech word for laborer) began appearing in science fiction in the early 1900s as metaphors for real world ideas and issues surrounding class struggles, labor, and intelligence. Author Ken MacLeod says that the idea that robots would one day rebel was baked into the narrative from the start. As technologies have advanced, so too have our fears.
- "Science fiction can help us to look at the social consequences, to understand the technologies that are beginning to change our lives," says MacLeod. He argues that while robots in science fiction are a reflection of humanity, they have little to do with our actual machines and are "very little help at all in understanding what the real problems and the real opportunities actually are."
- AI has made the threat of "autonomous killer robots" much more of a possibility today than when Asimov wrote his three laws, but it's the decisions we make now that will determine the future. "None of these developments are inevitable," says MacLeod. "They're all the consequences of human actions, and we can always step back and say, 'Do we really want to do this?'"
Pandemics have historically given way to social revolution. What will the post-COVID revolution be?
- The US is approaching 500,000 COVID-19 deaths. What can we learn from one year of loss and chaos?
- The lessons are clear. Among them are realizing our fragility as a species, our codependence as humans, and the urgent need to move beyond social injustice and inequity.
- As with the Renaissance following the Black Plague of the 14th century and the explosive creativity of the 1920s post Spanish influenza, this is our turn to redefine the course of history. Let's not mess this up.
First, some facts.<p>This is the biggest existential threat of our generation. We didn't face the tragedy of two world wars and, so far, escaped the ongoing threat of nuclear warfare. It's important to compare the tragedy that we are going through now with the devastation of the Spanish Influenza of 1918, with numbers that seem almost incomprehensible. It is estimated that about <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html" target="_blank">500 million people</a>, some one-third of the world's population then, were infected by the virus. Of those, 50 million—10 percent—died worldwide, 675,000 of which were in the US. In today's numbers, this would mean that about 2.4 billion people would be infected, and 240 million would die. At the time of writing, there have been about 109 million confirmed infections (surely an underestimate) and <a href="https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/" target="_blank">2.4 million deaths</a>. While the numbers are much better worldwide this time around, this data doesn't make us feel any better. We are approaching half a million deaths in the US, another incomprehensible number, getting closer to the number of US losses during the Spanish flu. Denial, the lack of federal leadership, the top-down silencing of scientific evidence and support, complacency, science denial—these are all to blame.</p>
Science is essential.<p>A global pandemic of this magnitude is first and foremost a public health issue and the first line of defense is through science and public policy working in tandem. The fact that we are faring comparatively better than in 1918 speaks to the power of medicine to save lives: ventilators, antiviral drugs, better sanitation, better understanding of how this virus operates. The numbers could have been much better if health policy measures had not become politically weaponized and added to the current ideological divide with tragic consequences. The fact that we now have extremely effective vaccines, some using entirely novel technologies, speaks again to the power of science to save lives. This is a moment to celebrate science in service of humanity's greater good.</p>
We need to rethink who we are.<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTY1NDg2My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2NzUxMjM1OH0.tvU-1kMIO1hvjow2pNKKe_i3C526z6cKcYXAGvBGeXQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="c1474" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="62c7f27c3a3ce0239daf7342828c0172" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2000" data-height="1125" />
Earth has existed for 4.5 billion years; our species, Homo sapiens, has existed for about 200,000 years.
Credit: desdemona72 via Adobe Stock<p>The pandemic has exposed our perennial fragility as a species. Nature operates under rules that don't include compassion for loss of life. We are not above nature. Technology may give us the impression that we can control the ways of the world, but we are still very much part of the process of natural selection, getting ill as mutant forms of this virus and others create new public health challenges. Natural selection is an endless battle for survival. We cannot trick it into a permanent stop, only into momentary halts. Indeed, as the environment changes, new forms of life emerge and not all of them will be beneficial to us. The melting of the permafrost is bringing up diseases that hit our distant ancestors and against which we are defenseless. Rethinking who we are calls for humility. Humility in the face of our limited resources, humility in the face of forces that are much more powerful than we are. We can dig deep holes and tunnels through mountains, cut down forests and make oceans retreat. But every one of these actions has a profound environmental impact that costs us dearly. Rethinking who we are calls for a reframing of our relationship to the planet. Earth has existed for 4.5 billion years; our species, <em>Homo sapiens</em>, has existed for about 200,000 years. We have just arrived here. Earth will continue without us. We can't continue without it, space exploration notwithstanding. The future of our project of civilization depends on our rethinking of our planetary role.</p>
We are a human hive.<p>The pandemic has given us ample proof of our codependence. We need each other at all levels; the first responders, the farmers and drivers, the supermarket workers bringing food to our tables. It is said that the stability of society is nine meals away. If we don't eat for 3 days, society unravels. And we need energy, supplies, banking systems, clear roads, clean cities, political stability, news, and fast internet. In a beehive, all workers contribute to the survival of the hive as a whole, every job is important. We are a human hive, and must respect all labor, and ensure that all workers are properly compensated. To live with dignity is not a luxury, it is a right.</p>
We must rethink social structure and inequality.<p>The uneven toll of the pandemic has exposed systemic racism and social injustice to levels that can no longer be tolerated or overlooked by anyone, and certainly by those in power. Since at least the origins of agrarian civilization, our ancestors divided into tribes so as to guarantee social cohesion against battling economies. Defined mostly by religious beliefs and social exclusion, such tribal walls have been the signpost of cultures across the globe. We now have a different view of humanity's place on this planet, our togetherness exposed to us in ways that many dislike. A virus doesn't care what you believe in, the color of your skin or how much money you have in the bank. It will attack opportunistically and hijack your cellular material to reproduce. But the extent to which people can protect themselves against such attacks does reveal societal inequities in transparent ways. If you share an apartment with eight people and must go to work every day, taking public transportation to get there, you will be walking into the war zone without a weapon or shelter. </p>
We need to rethink how we work.<p>With fast internet, it's abundantly clear that much of the dislocations to and from work, or frequent trips to distant places for meetings, is unnecessary, costly, and detrimental to the environment. Huge expenses with business real estate can be avoided, and funneled into higher compensation for workers and better computer and connectivity equipment. The notion of a downtown where people go to do business is quickly becoming obsolete. Travel will be mostly for fun and adventure. However, for this to become the new normal, fast connectivity and better equipment must be accessible to all, like electricity and clean water (there's some work still to be done here for sure.) Otherwise, we will be creating another tribal divide (it's here already), between those who have fast access to information and resources and those who don't.</p>
Why do we deprive students of the historical and cultural context of science?
- The teaching of science must and can be humanized at all levels, from nonscience courses to technical advanced courses.
- By teaching science only as a technical endeavor, we deprive students and future scientists of a more inclusive worldview where science is seen as part of our human need to make sense of the world.
- The challenges we face in the modern world call for an engagement of the sciences and the humanities that starts in the classroom and becomes an essential aspect of the public sphere.
Carl Sagan, one the most loved science teachers and communicators, speaks at Cornell University circa 1987.
Credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel by CC 4.0<p>Over the past two centuries, and largely influenced by the profound and immediate impact of technological applications of scientific thinking in industry and society, the teaching of science was mostly reduced to the instruction of technicians, a specialized guild focused on very specific tasks. We became incredibly efficient at handling abstruse mathematics and computer programming, of modeling specific systems and handling laboratory demands within narrow subdisciplines: plasma physics, condensed-matter physics, high-energy physics, astrophysics, and so on. The walls erected between the sciences and the humanities after the Enlightenment have multiplied into walls erected between the countless subdisciplines within each scientific field, from physics and chemistry to biology and computer science. Reductionism took over education and we lost sight of the whole.</p> <p>True, the vast amount of knowledge accumulated over the centuries, and that continues to grow at an unrelenting pace in all scientific fields, unavoidably precludes anyone from having a global understanding of a whole subject, be it astronomy or cognitive psychology. That is not what worries me, as I am, as are all my colleagues, one of the specialists. What does worry me is the enormous distancing between a scientific education and a humanistic approach to knowledge. From teaching Dartmouth's Physics for Poets for most of my career, I have witnessed the excitement of nonscience majors when they understand not the formulas of physics but the ideas of physics, the historical context from which they emerged, their philosophical and religious implications, the humanity of science itself, as an expression of our human need to make sense of who we are and of the world in which we live. (For those curious, I created a similar online course free and open to the public, <a href="https://www.edx.org/course/question-reality-science-philosophy-and-the-search" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Question Reality! Science, Philosophy, and the Search for Meaning</a> ) </p> <p>As students learn about changing worldviews, about the importance of observational rigor and methodological discipline, of the devotion and passion that feeds the search for knowledge and the fundamental relevance of science education in our times, they reconnect with a science they had deemed unwieldy and grow as thinkers and citizens. The challenges we face in the modern world call for an engagement of the sciences and the humanities that starts in the classroom and becomes an essential conversation in the public sphere.</p>
The study found that people who spoke the same language tended to be more closely related despite living far apart.
- Studies focusing on European genetics have found a strong correlation between geography and genetic variation.
- Looking toward India, a new study found a stronger correlation between gene variation and language as well as
- social structure.
- Understanding social and cultural influences can help expand our knowledge of gene flow through human history.
A new kind of mother tongue<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTU0ODY2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzODQ4MjEyMH0.Ag7iKSgWxyUn6-v3wbIk7ADkxtbyiuUaodlxjRYmDkk/img.jpg?width=980" id="e0037" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0624bd5ae5c2c18e87d89e6549ef3131" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="815" data-height="450" />
A map showing the locations of 33 Indian populations alongside plot graphs showing the relations between sociolinguistic groups and genetic structures.