It has become evident that we have an increasingly adverse relationship with facts. The news consumers prefer opinions over facts and ideologies over science. Often it is the journalists and the scientists themselves who contribute to this distrust among the general public towards the truth.
A story recently reported by the British daily, The Guardian, is an example of a bad name some scholars give to their community.
A proposal to insert a statue of Elena Cornaro Piscopia – the first woman ever to earn a PhD – in Prato Della Valle in Padua, Italy, has been met with opposition, also from her alma mater, the University of Padua. Carlo Fumian, a history professor at that university, where Elena Piscopia was a mathematics lecturer, said that, as quoted by The Guardian, the “expensive and bizarre” idea was “a bit trendy, but culturally inconsistent”.
Elena Cornaro Piscopia received her doctorate degree in philosophy in 1678, but it was not her only accomplishment. Her academic resumé is mind-blowing even for today’s standards: she was a philosopher, a mathematician and a theologist; she studied physics and astronomy, spoke seven languages and was a talented musician and composer. Considering that her life ended at the age of thirty-eight, this seems even more remarkable.
The merit of being born a man
There is already a statue honouring Piscopia at the University of Padua, and yet the idea of erecting another one, this time in Prato Della Valle, along with almost 80 statues dedicated to prominent men, causes controversy.
This could be the second time Dr Piscopia is denied her rightful place among the illustrious historical figures. She was not included by Padua officials when Prato Della Valle was designed in the late 18th century, although she did fulfil the criteria (either to be from the city of Padua or to have links to it). Space definitely was not an issue – covering 90,000 square metres Prato Della Valle is one of the largest squares in Europe.
Elena Piscopia faced misogyny and sexism not only posthumously but also during her life. She initially applied for a doctorate of theology but was denied by the officials in the Catholic Church on the grounds of being a woman thus unworthy of studying the divine matters. She pursued a degree in philosophy instead, for which she obtained the church’s consent.
Three centuries later, some men of science still consider it “bizarre” to honour their fellow professor and a brilliant mind. And, the reason is that among her numerous academic merits the one that still today seems to be of prime importance is missing: the merit of being born a man.
A very long history of bias in science
In various of his books, an Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, reminds us of the most esteemed and influential amongst intellectuals and academicians throughout the centuries, who in spite of their sophisticated educational background were not able to rise above certain biases. In “Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone”, we learn about Aristotle’s claim that humanity is divided into those born to rule and those born to obey.
In “Open Veins Of Latin America”, we read about a French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, according to whom the Latin American Indians were creatures with “no activity of the soul”, which practically meant comparing them to animals. Voltaire, French Enlightenment writer and advocate of civil liberties, famous for satirising intolerance, sustained that the Indians in Latin America were lazy and stupid.
An English philosopher and scientist, Francis Bacon, a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher; David Hume, a French political philosopher; and intellectual, Montesquieu; and a French political philosopher and professor of law, Jean Bodin refused to recognise the “degraded men” inhabiting Latin America as fellow humans. Hegel, a German philosopher, saw them as physically and spiritually impotent.
This unfortunate and baseless narrative prevailed among leading European thinkers and scholars and persisted for centuries, paving the way for the justification of genocides, thefts of resources and all kinds of abuses committed by conquistadors on the first nations around the globe.
Until a certain point in history, this narrative was reflecting the spirit and values of those times – which is not a valid excuse. But even now, long after those theories were debunked, we see how hard they die in the minds of some of the finest among us when it comes to intellectual capacity. And, this stripes the science of its credibility.
Ideology isn’t science
We live in privileged times as far as access to knowledge is concerned, and yet an astonishingly high number of people around the world, including its most digitalised parts, believe the earth is flat. They choose to believe so, against all evidence. Many turn to internet influencers, the home-grown “sages” who spread their uninformed opinions with no regard for fact-checking and rigorous methodology. Others decide to do “their own research”, whatever that means.
The recently released movie, described as an apocalyptic comedy, “Don’t Look Up”, is a brilliant and tragically accurate satire on today’s mistrust of science, where the smartest among us are ignored, silenced or ridiculed for being too hysterical for the stock markets, too dramatic to handle by our snowflake-like hypersensitivity and not entertaining enough to meet our hedonistic, self-indulgent needs. It also pictures a catastrophic scenario for a civilisation that turns its back on science.
This is not a voice against science but a reminder to the scientific community of their responsibility to keep their biases in check. We need their credibility now more than ever as there is much more at stake than honouring a female scholar with a statue.
The great irony is that it is now, in an extremely polarised and tribal world, more divided than ever, that we face unprecedented challenges that can only be addressed by a common effort. No single ideology can bring people together; science is our last resort, our only northern star.
As Confucius said, “Learning without thinking is pointless; thinking without learning is dangerous“. We need rigorous, fact-based secular science, free from xenophobia, homophobia or misogyny that appeals to all people and makes them want to follow it.