Opening of the Falling Walls Circle

Welcoming Address by Georg Schütte, State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, at the Max Liebermann Haus, Berlin

Georg Schütte, Staatssekretär im Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, während seines Grußwortes. © Photothek, Falling Walls Foundation

Professor Mlynek,
Ms Nowotny,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Linus Pauling, the Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, once said: “Facts are the air of scientists. Without them you can never fly.”

A glance at the current situation shows us that Pauling was right. We owe our progress today to past actions that were based on facts. Facts represent the winning formula for our current prosperity. Whether it be the Enlightenment, trail-blazing technical inventions or social innovations, none of these would have been possible without scientific findings on societal interrelationships or the growth of knowledge.

We should not forget this – neither should we simply rest on our oars.

On the contrary, we must persevere. And that is why the topic of this year’s Circle is so important: We must counter any trend towards fake news, towards blanket simplifications or towards debates which are driven by emotions alone.

Free and serious science opposes such tendencies per se by striving for new insights, by being curious and open to the unknown, by constantly challenging and questioning – with the clear aim of making progress on the basis of substantiated knowledge and scientific findings.

This is the opposite of simplification. It is a dynamic way of thinking which shows the courage and willingness to rethink and venture a new beginning.

Max Planck once said: “Science means unresting endeavour and continually progressing development.”

Societal development is grounded on a public culture of debate based on freedom of opinion, the search for the best compromise and the findings of free, fact-based science.

Today, digital technologies are offering new opportunities for participation and involvement. We must work to ensure that they are indeed used for the benefit of society as a whole – and not at the expense of a free, fair and fact-based debate.

Recent international trends are giving us cause for concern: Researchers in various countries are facing restrictions on their work and academic freedom is being jeopardized.

Furthermore, the public debate is being dominated by emotions. Emotions in themselves are nothing negative. Researchers – like politicians – should be able to demonstrate enthusiasm and passion. They should be ardent about their subject. But emotions become dangerous when they lead to resentment and prejudice. This makes people narrow-minded and faint-hearted. We in Germany are also seeing such tendencies – and the success of marginal parties in the recent Bundestag elections has shown that some sections of the population are receptive to such emotions.

We must be on our guard. We are facing an international challenge which we can only tackle together.

It is important to take a holistic look at this development and approach it from various angles in order to maintain a fact-based culture of debate in future.

  • What we need are projects and initiatives which increase society’s awareness of this issue. We must make people more aware of the importance and benefit of not being satisfied with hasty opinions and info-bits. We must motivate people to obtain sufficient information and join the dots for themselves.
  • We must also help people to acquire digital skills through appropriate training schemes. Digital literacy means being able to leave one’s habitual communication space and take a look from the outside.
  • It presupposes efforts to establish new, trustworthy authorities in the field of communications, which ensure reliability. The political opinion-forming process is currently undergoing radical changes – and with it the democratic discourse: The established media are playing a less influential role, whereas private individuals who are not journalists are suddenly able to have a mass impact. Which opinion can ever claim to have a stronger rationale than others when even the strangest opinions on the Internet find numerous supporters and “likes”. And then there are the algorithms which simulate human behavioural patterns. They can also influence people’s perceptions of politically and socially relevant topics. What we need therefore are new – good – authorities in the public discourse. These may be forums that are bound by rules, scientifically reliable information platforms, transparent dialogue formats or voluntary agreements on the part of stakeholders with regard to fairness and correctness.
  • In this context, it is also important to fund research on the channels for propagating fake news and the technical means for tracing fake news. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research is already supporting such research.

Research and politics are called upon to act. But we too are called upon as individuals to reconsider our everyday habits.

We must face up to the new questions with which we are being confronted – even if we cannot find all the answers today. These are questions such as:

  • What happens when debates on the Internet are determined by social bots and no longer by humans?
  • What happens when echo chambers are formed where groups of people are only provided with certain, selected information?
  • What happens when the rules of a culture of fair debate are undermined and all that remains is an exchange that is dominated by emotions?
  •  When do convictions and knowledge merge? What role do values play in our ways of reasoning and discussion? When do we leave the realm of scientific facts and enter the realm of enraged decision-making?

Perhaps we will find some rudimentary answers to these questions here today. As in previous years, the Falling Walls Circle is an excellent forum for discussion as it brings together different points of view and expertise in various disciplines. We can only formulate effective and sustainable solutions and methods of approach by involving all the different areas involved.

I am looking forward to exciting discussions and hope that we will all gain lots of useful insights.

Thank you!