Konverents akadeemiate nõuandvast rollist infoühiskonnas, 23. oktoober 2018
The age of innocence: A public call for scientists and politicians to become communicators and educators
Prof. Ülle Madise, Chancellor of Justice of the Republic of Estonia
Dear Mr President Soomere, Distinguished Guests,
It is a great honour to speak in front of such a high-level audience. Thank you for this opportunity.
To reflect on what was presented by Dr. Robert-Jan Smits and Professor Marju Lauristin, I would like to share three personal stories, or experiences, to be exact.
Before assuming my current position – Legal Chancellor, i.e. head of the constitutional institution designed to protect overall constitutionality and the people’s rights in Estonia -, I used to work as professor of constitutional law at the University of Tartu. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, then the President of the Republic invited me to advise him in constitutional matters.
Soon he decided to veto a law passed by the Parliament. President Ilves asked me to draft a letter to the Parliament with the explanations of his decision, his motives and reasoning. Presidential veto is serious stuff in our political system, used maybe once a year or even less.
So I took the task very seriously and professionally. Furthermore – it was an excellent example of legal and scientific writing. At least so I felt. I was really proud about my work.
The president read it through, looked a bit confused and lost, and finally asked if I could write the same things in a clear, understandable and much shorter way.
Mr Ilves, now a visiting scholar at Stanford, was completely right. If you want to have impact, to make a difference, you must maintain your ethics as scientist, be exact, use logic, remain independent, but you also have to be clear. It means others must understand you and your message. It is possible.
That is the reason why I changed the ways the Legal Chancellors Office communicates with people. Clear message is inter alia a way to respect the dignity of others. Of course: it is much more demanding to write clearly and briefly than … simply write. One must know what to say, and be ready to take responsibility.
The Institute of Estonian Language runs Clear Message Movement and annual clear message competition. For the last three years I have been the patron of this movement. This year one of the winners was a piece from our public radio, “News of Science”. Every morning at 8:30 there is a piece about a new and mostly important scientific breakthrough or finding. It runs for 3 minutes, and is really condensed but perfectly worded conclusion of some longer article from “Nature”, “Science” etc. Mr Priit Ennet, the author and editor of these pieces, can even describe the growing of grass in exciting terms.
I believe in science we need to communicate the results of our research in a short, logical and clear manner. This does not affect our reputation as scientists, on the contrary. People have “Nase voll” of experts, because they feel themselves left out of the picture, not treated as equals and with dignity.
We may expect and sometimes even demand blind trust in experts and science. But many do not share this kind of trust. Furthermore – it has become popular to openly ignore science, facts and truth. As legal scholar Cass Sunstein, currently professor at Harvard Law School, warned already 10 years ago, Internet has given rise to an “era of enclaves and niches” (it is recalled in recent MIT Technology Review). Francis Fukuyama argues in an essay published in “Der Spiegel” 10 days ago, that the only way to save democracy and rule of law is to bring people together again. Scholars have much to do in this respect.
The third piece of my reflection comes in the form of personal history on binding research and decision-making, and is a little bit different. In the beginning of this Millennium I belonged to the team of cryptographs, IT-scientists and lawyers who initiated Estonian online voting system.
An innovation usually comes along when different disciplines and experience meet for the first time. Believe me or not but it took a whole day to understand each other’s language. We left Tallinn for two days, all the heads of IT security of the banks, scientists from the universities and some lawyers. It was really time and money well spent. It came out that we all were self-conscious, thought that we know everything about the matter and for long hours did not understand why there were communication gaps.
To give you a simple example: I manifested clearly, that the electronical ballot must remain anonymous as it does in paper envelopes. “Not possible,” came immediate answer from the tech guy. Soon it came out, that lawyers and mathematicians perceive theory of certainty in a different way.
To conclude fourth story.
Two monks are standing on the road with a sign in their hands. „Stop! Contemplate! Think about your life. Turn around. Otherwise you will be dead soon“
A car rushes by without stopping. In less than a minute, a sound of a terrible crash could be heard.Second car: the same.
One monk asks another: „May be we should say it clearer?“
„F.e „The bridge is broken““
We, scientists can be these monks. Let us take care of our souls.
It is important to take care of our scientists souls.