At the entrance of a respected university that I passed a few weeks ago, while on vacation, was a large signboard that said: “When we think we know everything, we think again”.
Placed at the entrance of an institution of higher learning, this seemed an apt, if common sense enough reminder, to students and academics that knowledge is never ever static.
We never really know anything even though most times we think and act as if we do. Even a simple thing like what you and I are made of is a mystery. Scientists used to think that the most fundamental and indivisible building block of matter was the atom.
We now know that this is not the case. The protons, electrons and neutrons that make up atoms are themselves made up of fermions (quarks, leptons and their antimatter equivalents) as well as force-carrying bosons.
While it is by no means certain, there are reasons to think that even these are made up of tiny superstrings that somehow vibrate in no less than 10 dimensions. We know mountains more than we did before but we just do not know what is an elementary particle any more.
To be sure, we are more supercharged and super-empowered than at any other time in our history. Our scientific achievements have not only made the Internet and smartphones possible but life-saving and life-extending medical advances. (Sadly, we also have unparalleled capacity to end human lives.)
If we at any stage in our history as human beings, as communities and as nation states had said that we already “know everything” and that there was no need to discover and uncover more, we would have frozen ourselves in our ignorance. Very possibly, we as a species would have been conquered or else ceased to exist.
History certainly shows this to be the case even with former large and dominant ancient civilisational superpowers. The enormous paradox is that even as we are scientifically and technologically at an epoch, our social and individual thinking is heading towards all-time lows.
We have even coined a politically correct term for this in the recent United States elections: “post-truth” politics. Post-truth politics makes repeated appeals to emotions that are not only devoid of facts but riddled with falsehoods. People are frustrated and angry at governments and thus facts no longer matter.
Religious and political dogmas in many parts of the world are beginning to rule the day and state elites are ever-willing to go along with their version of post-truth politics to remain in power.
Frankly, many power elites around the world have given in to the temptation just so that they may remain in office. This is even if it means creating strife and polarisation within their societies. Rather than admit their failures and take responsibility for their actions, they play the hate card, whether it is against Muslims, non-Muslims, Chinese, Mexicans, Africans and so forth.
Whenever post-truth politics (or what used to be called propaganda) is merged with hate politics, the outcomes are never good. Death and destruction prevail. Again, this is not a baseless opinion but backed by literally centuries of history.
In 2017, Malaysians again have a choice to make. This will be the 60th year that we must do so. Do we become participants to dogma and post-truth politics? Do we want to propagate the idea of religious and racial supremacist ideas? Do we continue to ignore the dishonesties and exploitation that are eating away at the very fabric of the nation and its institutions or start to rectify them? Do we want to state beyond doubt that we know everything there is be known, and that there is no need to be open to ideas, all kinds of ideas?
We have a small but intellectually arrogant and ignorant group that would have us close our minds and turn our backs against not only scientific but all manner of knowledge to remain in control.
It is my hope that we will in 2017, and in all following years, deny them their desires.
This article first appeared in The New Straits Times on 3 January 2017.