Where scientists are superstars
In 1951, Germany emerged from the ruins of the second World War to find itself largely cut off from the international community of scientists.
Scientists elsewhere in the world also began to pick up the threads of research that had been dropped as many of the greatest minds of the era joined armies or linked up with the resistance, fled into exile, or were co-opted to the needs of the military.
The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings rose out of these dark times, with the goal to
"reconnect German scientists to the international scientific community, to overcome the borders between nations and minds and to work towards a future of peace and scientific progress."Last week, the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting brought 28 nobel laureates together with 420 young scientists for a week of presentations and discussions.
Of course the keynote addressed climate change, one of the most pressing political questions of our time, and one which has brought all of science into question.
While most of the proceedings focused on how science keeps shedding light on the mysteries of our universe, some of the discussions addressed the role of scientists in a post-truth era when debates stop at the "alternative facts" without proceeding to the actions required, threatening to paralyze progress.
On a fundamental level, scientists believe themselves to be outside of this "alternative truth" issue, because the very underpinnings of the scientific method establish a rational manner for seeking truth and discussing the merits of alternative studies or observations. Nobel laureate W.E. Moerner told DW:
"Science itself is not an alternative fact. We have no alternative but to use scientific enquiry to make the proper choices to improve the world for the future."
But the scientists did discuss how they can help people understand the difference between the scientific method and its results versus the political decisions based on science. In societies that uphold democratic principles, "we the people" must adequately understand the science before good governance can manage the issues facing us.
For a group of people that use the word "theory" to describe well-established scientific principles, communicating with the general public can be tough.
Scientists attending the meeting reflected on some of the weaknesses of the scientific community - cases where failures of modern technology cause harm to the general public, sowing mistrust for science and the products of modern research. Yet a few high-profile negative cases pale in contrast with the successes of science: no one who drives across a bridge, enjoys adequate nutrition, or communicates with friends and family around the planet should fail to appreciate the value of the science behind the benefits.
Many young scientists talked about the need to get involved in politics. It seems a shame for great minds to leave the lab bench in favor of the podium, but perhaps the self-segregation of political and scientific approaches needs to be overcome before discussions can be returned to a point where facts are facts and policy can be discussed civilly by people holding different opinions about how we should act in the face of those facts.
At any rate, it is a pleasure to see that there is still a place where the scientists are superstars, gathering crowds of fawning admirers. We may well face a more nationalistic political future, but we should learn the lesson of history and strive not to lose the global cooperation among scientists.