How Do You, as a Scientiest, Treat Information? – Prof. Václav Cílek


Alexander Stipsits from Idealism Prevails had the great opportunity to meet Professor Václav Cílek who is a Czech geologist, climatologist, writer, philosopher, science popularizer, and translator of Tao and Zen texts. In a series of three parts, Sascha tries to find out more about the general treatment of information.

For those people who don’t know you, could you give us some biographical background?

My life is not so important, but basically, I studied Geology and Environmental Geology at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the Charles University in Prague. I was also trained as a miner, but since 1990 I have been working a lot with archaeologists on such topics as paleoclimate, the transformation of civilisations, the collapses and regeneration of civilisations, as well as the evolution of the central European landscape.

I have written a number of books, some of them won awards, and have made around 100 documentary films for TV, mostly about historical monuments and landscape monuments.

Let us now look at aspects of your work with which I am familiar. At the moment there is a huge discussion about “information” in general; there is a debate about what information is real, what is fake. Now, you as a classically trained scientist, how do you treat information, how do you arrive at conclusions, how do you educate yourself, where are your sources, what are your sources? And what do you advise people to do when they really try to understand an issue, whatever it may be?

I am not quite sure what is happening, you know. But since this immigration crisis, the understanding of the media has shifted from the understanding of the people on a very large scale. One negative aspect of the Central European media is that if you are an individual of the leftist persuasion, you are a leftist activist; if you come more from the right, you are a neo-fascist. This is something that has gotten out of control.

In my opinion, there are studies about what a “normal person” thinks, but let’s say 30-40%, maybe even more, of the common people on the street hold something that could be classified by journalists as right-wing views. If you look at normal people, there is a mixture of almost extremist left-wing opinions, about banks, for example, and right-wing opinions.

There is not much to say about that.

Once you start talking about the “right” aspect, it is appearing, for example, in the US elections, unusual phenomena, unexpected. This was the beginning of, let’s say, the crisis. In most recent times, last year, especially in the Czech Republic, I just want to talk about my own experience. I feel that I am getting into an ever-denser fog.

I have difficulties believing in the official media. I am observing that the journalists have their own opinions and they pursue them. In a way that has always been so, but now they are making politics themselves instead of just providing plain facts. Or at least a selection. So, I have great difficulties in understanding the Czech mass media.

What do I do about it?

I do not dwell much on those things. Sometimes I check the BBC, but not very systematically, and Al Jazeera in English. Of course, Al Jazeera is biased in the other direction but if you want to have information about China, in India, what is happening in Pakistan, in the other centers of the world, not just Paris and so on … you must go to channels such as AL Jazeera. Especially for documentaries about, for example, the plight of Syrian farmers during the droughts, about how people are living in Anatolia … but this is just one aspect.

Mass media are often called “fast media“, and one must combine them with “slow media”. So, much of what I know comes from books. Of course, books are published some time after they have been written. If they come from good publishing houses, they are unlikely to contain any systematic mistakes. Of course, if we are talking about the future or the evaluation of certain complex aspects, there can be mistakes.

But you can say they are mistakes in the topical science, not from someone plainly intent on manipulation. This is one kind of information that gives me an idea about the broader trends. The other source I rely on are expert dossiers. There are several available, like “State of the World” or “Global Risk” from the World Economic Forum, for example. There are organisations that publish information of the highest quality. I read those reports, and often make summary articles for public media from them . Basically, for myself to understand what I have read.

Thank you. You are somebody who, as a scientist, is trying to come out of the “Ivory Tower“, and you say it is important for you to get the public involved. To inform the wider public about complex connections. Could you explain what your attitude is as a science “populariser”? You are receiving much criticism for the way you communicate your own science and the wider field around it.

There are several aspects. Firstly: there are so many interesting and important things happening that nobody cares about. If you go to the newspaper, as I do, you will see that many of the journalists are young people without much responsibility, without children, and they are very busy. Because, where can you save money as a medium? People. So, they draw from a few sources and it goes around, and round.

But the public needs what I call the “widening of semantic fiends“. Simply bringing in new topics. New attitudes, bringing the news from all parts of the world, widening the topics people are talking about. For my part, I have started to write about the climate as a popular science, I think from 1988. It has now been almost 30 years, and through observing the literature, the shifts in opinion about it, I believe I have some background in climatology.

One reason why people criticise you strongly is for not drawing a totally clear line between hard science and a more intuitive, poetic view of the world. As a scientist, how did you come to the point that you allow things to exist which in science we cannot yet measure?

Our understanding of science is a result of the enlightenment. It was the result of the church being too powerful and people wanting to escape the intellectual suppression. From the 16th, 17th century in England, France, and so on, in Bohemia maybe from the late 18th and even 19th century. During those times there existed the scientific point of view, and, let’s call it the spiritual point of view.

But if you read, for example, Aristotle, he sees a logical part of the mind, and then A-logo, an irrational part of the mind. But that is a part of the mind that helps you to understand music, for example. Emotions through poetry … and the only thing you must know is in which part of the mind you are. I say to myself:

This is scientifically established, but now let’s leave the field of science and move into the sphere of evaluation, of thinking about it, phenomenology, interpretation … use the additional, the full mind to combine it. I think you cannot be complete without that combination. As Thomas Aquinas said: Reason is something divine in its origin. That may be difficult to accept for scientists now.

What I try, what is natural for me, is to be an integrated person, and not to divide minds and attitudes. Then I can be attacked, yes, and I listen to it.

Two further parts of the detailed talk with Professor Vaclav Cílek and questions about climate change, migration and other issues that will confront people with complex challenges in the future will follow shortly.


Image Title Author License
Václav_Cílek Václav_Cílek CeSt CC BY 3.0