COMMENT:

We are at a critical time as a species. The world is undergoing the biggest transformation arguably since the agricultural revolution and certainly since the Enlightenment and industrial revolution.

This transformation has demographic, environmental and social dimensions. Rapid and cumulative developments in life sciences and particularly digital technologies are at the heart of the transition. The way the way we perceive ourselves, interact, organise in groups and amalgamate those groups into societies are all undergoing fundamental change.

We are proud to live in a democracy. But what does that mean in a time of fake news, attacks flourishing on social media and much conversation being reduced to the triviality of tweets, Facebook posts and media obsessions with celebrities, violence and titivation.

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Certainly the critical importance of deep conversations has been put into sharp focus by the recent heinous event in Christchurch, but deep conversation and the use of robust evidence is not just for crises — it is the critical component of protecting our democracy.

Conversation on key matters is often hard, requiring discourse across differing but strongly-held values and world views. It can be obscured, it is manipulated and participation is unequal. Yet failure to have effective conversation on difficult matters is an existential threat to all of us.

This is in no small part why climate change is not being aggressively addressed, why social cohesion is under severe threat in many places, why democracies are being undermined by nationalism, nativism and populism.

These 'isms' rise when conversation is based on manipulated rather than robust evidence. Social media and the changed nature of other media have obscured the capacity and need for real conversation. Ideas are not contested civilly, rather people are attacked, falsehoods multiply.

Sir Peter Gluckman. Photo / Dean Purcell
Sir Peter Gluckman. Photo / Dean Purcell

Our evolution as social animals required mechanisms for group consensus and group rules. Democracy is a manifestation of that social dynamic and works best when publics are informed not manipulated,and can have a civil contest of worldviews, values and ideas informed by robust evidence.

The current environment has undermined trust in expertise and knowledge. Italian historian of science Andrea Grignolio recently said of the anti-vax movement, "There is a global trend of distrust in mediators — doctors and scientists — who can interpret and explain data ... With the advent of the internet, people have the illusion they can access and read data by themselves, removing the need for technical and scientific knowledge."

Arguably, the biggest academic challenge is addressing the pace of technological, societal and environmental changes. Siloed knowledge cannot help us cope well with such change.

Leadership will mean ensuring truth prevails, that citizens have access to robust knowledge, that we find ways to address the existential and difficult challenges ahead and get beyond the short-termism that prevails in much current discourse and politics.

For democracy to thrive, countries to progress and the planet to be healthy, dialogue and decision-making on complex matters will need to progress in an informed, collegial and constructive manner. Yet there is declining trust in expertise and institutions.

Robust analysis, scholarship and discourse is needed if we are to avoid a dystopian future. And New Zealand is in a unique position to be a global leader in exploring and tackling these emergent issues.

Sir Peter Gluckman is the founding director of the Centre for Science in Policy, Diplomacy and Society and president-elect of the International Science Council.