The godfather of Cambridge’s “Silicon Fen” has branded European university leaders “chickens” for what he perceives as a failure to stand up for science in a “post-truth” society.
Hermann Hauser, the entrepreneur who co-founded Acorn Computers and venture capital firm Amadeus Capital Partners, told Times Higher Education that it is “high time that we take a stand as Europeans against forces that are withdrawing into their national cubbyholes”.
“We need to take a stand for science against pseudoscience,” he said.
Earlier this month, the Austrian-born innovator chided Jacques Biot, president of École Polytechnique, for his “very gentle” response regarding how France can capitalise on the political climate in the US.
During a question and answer session after his keynote address at the THE Innovation & Impact Summit in Hong Kong, Professor Biot said he did not want to turn anti-science rhetoric in the US into a “competitive advantage” for his institution and French higher education. He was speaking the day after US president Donald Trump said the country would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and in the wake of French president Emmanuel Macron’s call for US climate change researchers to move to France.
Dr Hauser responded: “I think you’re a bit of a chicken actually. This is a case of when you have a leader of the world being a climate change denier…and I think it behoves us to stand up for the rest of the world, and say ‘well, if your nation [the US] doesn’t understand that land is important to preserve then come to Europe as we will stand [up] for it’.”
Later, when asked by THE whether many European university leaders are “chickens”, Dr Hauser said: “Yes and this has very good historic reasons,” adding that “Germany in particular is a chicken”.
He said the country “still suffers” from the fact that it “tried to become very dominant” before and during the Second World War.
“Now they’re almost doing penance but that period of atonement mustn’t take the excessive position of not standing up for what’s right,” he said.
“The people who allow alternative facts are very vocal so you’ve got to fight fire with fire and stand up and say that they are wrong and they are stupid.”
While Dr Hauser admitted that the “deviation from the rational path” was “very disappointing”, he said that, in the long term, science “will win” because “it is the only process known to man that’s reproducible” and is a “wonderful way of resolving differences”.
“The number one value of science is that anybody who is willing to engage in the scientific argument will be led to the same result,” he said. “To deny that this is the most desirable process that mankind has evolved is very retrograde.”
“If you take religion or philosophy or any of the other [disciplines] you can take different positions on issues. In science you can’t. You cannot have alternative facts even if Trump wants to have them.
“Because of [this] property I believe that, long term, people will be rational and will be convinced that rationality is the best way of moving forward.”
When asked how the higher education sector can prove its public value, he said: “The sad thing is we just have to prove on a daily basis the value of scientific truth.”
“It’s sad that we have to do it. It takes time and it takes effort but we just have to persist,” he added.
However, Dr Hauser said it was “wrong” for universities and students to no-platform speakers who are anti-science.
The University of California, Berkeley came under fire earlier this year after it cancelled a speech by conservative author Ann Coulter owing to “concerns over safety and security”, for example.
“Stupid people exist [but] that doesn’t mean you can ignore them,” Dr Hauser said.
“If they have arguments you’ve got to understand why they argue the way they do and patiently explain to them that they’re wrong. Not allowing them to talk to university students is a regrettable development.”