Two times two makes yet four
Wieslawa Lewandowska talks to Prof. Lucjan Piela about the lack of serious public debate and the need of independent thinking not only in the society.
Wieslawa Lewandowska: – The letter ‘In defence of the truth’, which you initiated, expresses anxiety about the failure of the academic elites, which we have been observing for some time. What was the direct impulse for such a fierce and unequivocal stand of the professors’ group?
Prof. Lucjan Piela: – Our letter ‘In defence of the truth’ originated as an expression of protest against the embarrassing level of public debate forced on our society by the media. University environments also accept this level sometimes.
– Why have mainly professors of the sciences signed this letter?
– It was decided by the circumstance that our faculties are separated from the university campus located in Krakowskie Przedmiescie… But another decisive fact was that dealing with the sciences we are used to certain discipline of thinking, to arduous checking the premises and making conclusions from them in accordance with the principles of logic. We might then see so clearly and acutely the disappearance of independent thinking in social debate, many a time including those who should be the elite of the society.
– Was this the reason to describe the experiment of Asch that shows the mechanism of submission to the opinion of some group out of fear of being rejected by the group?
– Yes, it was. We wanted to show the result of Asch’s research explaining how one can manipulate people in a precise way. Words are only words but it can be shown best in Asch’s lines. These are: in his famous experiment Asch showed it was easy to make people believe that line X was of the same length as line A or line B. After the manipulation people themselves admit that they said so not to differ from the others or to satisfy the others. We hope that our letter will at least partially unmask this mechanism of manipulating public opinion and many people who except many strange contents uncritically will begin reflecting whether they are not receiving bad lies in the wonderfully wrapped package of beautiful words. There is only one remedy for manipulation: independent thinking.
– It is assumed that it is the elites, especially academic elites that should do their best to make the truth be reflected in daily life of the society. But your letter accuses these elites of intellectual laziness, lack of independent thinking and even forgetting the mission of university.
– We do not want to accuse anyone since we remained silent several years ago (we regret it very much) when there was a hunt against the President of the Republic of Poland. Now we are sharing our observations and fears. Asch’s effect does not only concern ordinary bread eaters. Sometimes we even think that it is harder to make simple people believe in obvious lies. But if TV viewers see ten titled ‘experts’ speaking (figuratively) that ‘2 x 2 = 7’ Asch’s effect works in almost everyone (during Asch’s experiment it was as many as 76% of the participants). Our very serious academic problem is, of course, where these ‘experts’ come from and why they are found so easily despite the doctoral oath, which basically speaks only about seeking the truth.
– You mean reliability to fulfil the mission of university...
– It is a fundamental problem. In the document ‘The mission of Warsaw University,’ which says a lot about developing various forms of teaching, summer schools, doctoral studies, I have found something that made me wonder: the word ‘truth’ never appears in the document. But the shortest definition of university is, ‘a community of teachers and students in search of the truth.’
– Wasting important words?
– I hope that most university teachers do not waste words. But… ‘it is only a liturgical text,’ one of my colleagues has said about the doctoral oath recently. I am depressed about it first of all because such a weird opinion was given by a man whom I do not suspect of dishonesty… Has something broken in people? Has something wrong happened? Mickiewicz wrote in ‘Master Thaddeus, ‘The doctrine was ancient, the question was of its application. But at that time such general blindness prevailed that they did not believe the oldest things in the world if they did not read of them in a French newspaper.’ And today we have the same what was over 200 years ago! If a nation is to be destroyed – as our poet warned – it experiences some strange intellectual blindness at first…
– And are we dealing wish such blindness today?
– I am afraid that today we are observing a unique growth of blindness! The first thing is to be aware of that. Secondly, we should start thinking independently. Thirdly, we should demand to make decisions in our close and distant environments based on a friendly, profound discussion, grounded on the truth and respect for everyone’s dignity.
– But the Polish commandment, ‘Do not step out of line’ is still valid…
– It is neither a Polish commandment nor a speciality; it is a feature of human nature. Not stepping out of line is simpler, easier and more pleasant. Stepping out of line requires a clear thought that can defend itself in a reliable discussion. It is much more difficult and this is how Asch’s effect works. We have so many examples that the desire to ‘be accepted in a group’ wins even over common sense! We experience the power of suggestion that opens, as we have written in the letter, ‘the field of manipulation within the so-called social engineering, the main help of totalitarianisms.’
– We are living in the world of mass imagination and the broad public opinion is shaped by authorities supported by the media, especially by television. And they tell people straight that long is short and short is long?
– Unfortunately, sometimes it looks like that. It seems that even authentic authorities have been at a loss somehow in this complicated reality or simply silenced. Perhaps they will find enough strength to speak… Their place has been taken by various kinds of manipulators and cynical scoffers who have destroyed social debate, reducing it to the level of boorish quarrel and farce.
– And it is not a quarrel about the shape and future of the state?
– In no way is it a debate based on arguments; it does not build the truth but it destroys it. It destroys the state and its future. Many people have regarded our letter as an appeal for public debate, social discourse based on the truth and respect of every participant of the discussion.
– And it seems actually very unlikely considering the present monopoly of rightness and truth…
– It should and must be possible at last. One should overcome artificial barriers created between people by manipulators of social engineering. I appeal to Prof. Bartoszewski whom I respect very much, who has proved by his life that it is worth being honest, opting for the truth today… I will never believe that after a peaceful conversation Prof. Bartoszewski could not see what can be seen so easily…I appeal to Mr Pawel Kowal who I have always valued for his knowledge, moderation, tact and reason. We graduated from the same Stanislaw Konarski Grammar School in Rzeszow. I suppose that during his times patriotism was taught. I appeal to other honest people who can be found in every party: it is time to begin speaking seriously about Poland. In my opinion quarrels and insults appear when some people want to cheat others…
– …that’s why in Poland quarrels prevail over arguments in debates?
– Quarrels release people from thinking and serious discourse requires logic, excludes uncritical acceptance of other people’s opinions only for the sake of peace. Reflecting on your own arguments is always hard; it requires solid work whereas insulting someone is extremely easy and does not require thinking.
– It is a very acute judgement. Do you think the intellectual elites and anointed authorities have stopped thinking, too?
– I would prefer to believe that the authorities have been surprised by the situation and most of them simply have not stood by the truth yet, and their reasons could vary – it could also be psychological reasons – and could be understood in many cases. After all no thinkers, perhaps except the professional manipulators, are interested in living in lies. So I believe that these present day authorities must admit that 2 x 2 = 4 at last, in accordance with their own consciences. I hope it will happen some day since now it still happens that the one that says 2 x 2 = 4 is labelled as a ‘loony.’
– And one does not talk to loonies; their opinions can be ignored!
– We would have to consider their arguments and here, horror of horrors!, our own arguments that 2 x 2 = 7 can look any, any…whatever. The reliable evaluations consider all options without any exception, even those that seem very unlikely. Otherwise one will not reach the truth. One can exclude something only at the end of reliable evaluations, never in the beginning.
– Who would you blame for the lack of reliable matter-of-fact public debate: intellectual authorities or rather the media?
– I think that the biggest blame falls on the media that aim at earning money. It is in their interests to evoke quarrels because then they are sold better than to present a peaceful matter-of-fact discourse. Therefore, troublemakers appear in the media more often than serious commentators.
– Peaceful discussion is not a media event?
– No, it is not. It is even called ‘talking heads,’ a symbol of boredom. It is a symbol of boredom but only when we do not learn anything from the discussion because it is superficial and done hastily, without presenting an uninterrupted sequence of logical reasoning. But factually, such logical reasoning allows us to touch the truth and I can ensure you that it is not boring. Now it is hard to notice in the media statements of real authorities that understand their social missions well.
– Instead of real authorities we have ‘dressed in togas,’ as the professors wrote in their letter?
– No, but in our opinions (omitting glorious exceptions) it looks like that in the media. ‘Professors on duty’ appear on television – I dare doubt whether it was because of their scientific achievements – they are made as authorities who are to testify about the truth. I remember the origin of one of such careers. It was sufficient that someone wrote a letter to the university authorities asking for a salary increase and this letter contained a vulgar word. Then the person became a media expert… in almost any issue. Such professors tell banal remarks in front of TV cameras. One cannot treat seriously someone who explains authoritatively the opinion polls conducted the previous day, giving their psychological justification that cannot be supported by any scientific research and will rather never be supported by any. And the poll columns are also Asch’s columns… Now we know why they are shown to us so frequently, desirably columns of three or four polls.
– Do you think that our thinking is ruled only by pseudo-elites, pseudo-authorities?
– In Poland there are true intellectual elites. However, they are not the compass for disorientated society but these pseudo-elites for whom the truth does not exist or it depends on the one that asks…
– What’s next? Will ‘the defence of the truth’ be continued?
– The defence of the truth is a struggle has been accompanying humanity since its beginnings. The essence of our appeal is a demand of honest debate concerning the important national issues. We do not need any institutional façade. The important thing is that in various parts of Poland there are similar initiatives, that all these groups have got to know one another and see how many people think in a similar way. It is also important that more and more people can learn what the Asch effect is, how strong it is and how to discern it in the media. I want to ensure you that these people will watch TV and read newspapers differently. It is also important to have new ideas and that those who think independently can support one another – through newspapers or the Internet – and to demand public debate and to initiate it.
– Do you believe that it is possible in contemporary Poland?
– As a chemist I can say that sometimes a small movement, small change in some substance makes it change in its whole volume. The same can happen with social ‘substance’ that can change in the direction of the truth and it depends on standing by the truth in the conscience of each of us…
Prof. Dr. Lucjan Piela
Specialist in quantum chemistry, author of ‘Ideas of Quantum,’ textbook for doctoral students; dean of the Faculty of Chemistry of Warsaw University in the years 1993-96, member of the Royal Belgian Academy of Science and the European Academy of Sciences.