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"Researchers must engage in a dialogue with the outside world"

Read the speech by Dean Lars Bo Nielsen at the March for Science event in Aarhus on 22 April 2018.


Dean Lars Bo Nielsen gave a speech at the March for Science event in Aarhus on the 22nd of April 2018.

By Lars Bo Nielsen, Dean at Health, Aarhus University

We stand here today to pay tribute to the role of science in society.

And if science is to play a role in society, it must interact with society; Be part of society.

Although you could think that we’re standing here against a backdrop of fake news and alternative facts, the purpose of the march is to celebrate research – and celebrate the role that research plays in the world and in everyday life. It’s a positive movement. Knowledge interacting with society will always be positive.

That’s what we’re also doing today: Interacting.

Meeting people. We meet across subjects, research and our own prior understanding. And yes, we meet all over the world – across languages, research traditions and political conditions.

It is therefore pleasing to see all of you here today supporting this.

Erasmus Montanus

But the interplay between research and society has not always enjoyed the same good conditions. Viewed in a broad historical perspective, the world’s pendulum swings back and forth.

We have had the Enlightenment with the great French philosophers. That was a time where science had wind in its sails. People believed in reason as a critical tool. They were enthusiastic about new natural scientific insights. They went on the offensive against the dogmas, prejudice, censorship and authority of earlier times.

But science faced difficult times even during the Enlightenment.

Here in Denmark, we all know Holberg's story about the young student Rasmus Berg who moves to Copenhagen to study.

After a few years at the university, Rasmus returns to his home region. Now he calls himself Erasmus Montanus – and he wants to keep up appearances.

Back home where he was born together with his mother Nille, Erasmus begins to interact with the world around him.

He claims that the Earth is round – even though everybody can see for themselves that it is in fact flat. And he argues (using flawed logic) that his mother Nille is a stone:

"A stone cannot fly. Mother Nille cannot fly. Ergo, Mother Nille is a stone!"

Of course, the story ends with Rasmus having to eat his words and agree with the people in the village that the Earth is indeed flat.

Eske Willerslev

But even today we can at times face an uphill struggle when science interacts with the world around it.

The other day I watched a TV-programme with Professor Eske Willerslev. He’s the brother of Rane who has a museum. Rane also has a TV-programme.

Anyway, in this programme Eske Willerslev was contacted by a Jewish millionaire from New York, Zecharia Sitchin. Sitchin has this theory that our civilization is founded by aliens from outer space. He believes that the evidence is buried together with a Sumerian queen whose Earthly remains are locked away at the National Museum of History in London. And he wants to get Willerslev to investigate the matter.

There is no lack of scepticism from Eske Willerslev’s scientific colleagues. They’re afraid that collaborating with some crazy, American UFO enthusiasts will ruin both Eske Willerslev’s own personal reputation and besmirch the basic research centre that they too are part of.

Despite these warnings, Eske chooses to take on the challenge. He travels to New Mexico and is given a tour of a society characterised by UFO fanatics where the whole town celebrates alien culture.

Utilising his scientific background, Willerslev is able to get the Natural History Museum in London to give him some fragments of the Sumerian queen, before getting down to some scientific work. 

Using DNA analysis, Willerslev can prove that the Sumerian queen is an ordinary human being – and not an alien from outer space.


And what can we learn from this?

We can learn that we, as researchers and scientists, must show that we’re open for alternative models – as long as they can be scientifically tested.

We can learn that discussion, dialogue, and interaction with the outside world are all important. That we can come along way by coming together.

We can also learn that the best defence against resistance to facts and against the sceptics is documentation and facts, communicated in a way that is understandable.

Science plays an important role in our lives and gives us insight into the world.

That is why we are here today.

So my message to you is: Go out and interact with the world.

That is how science becomes a part of society.
That is our role.

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