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Promoting scientific and rational literacy to create a friendly global ideology that helps humanity
Soenke Ziesche   Jul 6, 2015   Ethical Technology  

We are living in a world with many challenges and even existential risks. Yet only a relatively small number of people seem to be concerned about this, while others apparently oblivious behave adversely towards these challenges, e.g. through an environmentally unfriendly lifestyle, in developing as well as developed countries. Very often the reason for this behaviour is not lack of education, but wrong education. In many places children are neither educated properly in sciences, nor are their rationality skills trained. Instead in many parts of the world, the curriculum is linked to unscientific ideologies, which pupils are prone to believe forever if indoctrinated in early childhood.

Referring to the environmental challenges Craig Venter said once: “Our planet is in crisis, and we need to mobilize all our intellectual forces to save it. One solution could lie in building a scientifically literate society in order to survive.”

In this article I would like to argue that it is not only critical to change the content of education, but also to link it to a new ideology.

Rationality training

While I treat the necessity of scientific training as self-evident, I shall go into some detail about rationality training: Through the exercise of reason human thought processes can be considered rational. Rationality skills are a prerequisite for humans to understand how the world works and in order to be able to make better decisions about how to act in the world. Progress in science and technology would not have been possible without the human ability for rational reasoning. However, findings in cognitive psychology show that humans tend to make frequent errors in rational reasoning due to biases and faulty heuristics, which are related to the kluge structure of the human mind. Nevertheless, humans have been smart enough to identify a variety of these deficiencies, but it has been acknowledged that generally the “sanity waterline”  among humans is (still) not very high. However, rationality has to be considered as an essential toolkit to solve difficult problems linked to advancing technologies.

Paradoxically, due to certain biases (such as the confirmation bias) and faulty heuristics, we are led to doubt fundamental developments such as the destruction of the human civilization as a consequence of emerging technologies.  In response to this problem, various philosophical approaches, but also recently the Center for Applied Rationality have developed methods to overcome such fallacies and to teach people how to reason better. It is argued here that, while such rationality training is essential, its flaw is that it currently reaches only a minority of people, i.e. mostly educated Westerners. Therefore, this approach must be broadened and globalized to reach out to the entire world.

Article 26 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states “Everyone has the right to education. […] Elementary education shall be compulsory.” Given its impact rationality (as well as science) must be considered as part of the elementary education to which everyone has the right. In other words, it is a violation of a human right to deprive millions of people of the ability to better understand how the world works as they are left scientifically illiterate and without trained rationality skills. Furthermore, the opportunities of new technologies as well as the challenges and existential risks concern everyone and not just the educated elite.

Implementation: Teach and preach

It is not sufficient to only teach rationality and science, but also behavioural change in the light of the challenges in the world should be preached. In this regard, I recommend a look at religions: Religions have been and are still extremely successful to spread their ideologies, and religions tend to be based on books. Therefore, I propose a two-fold task: 1) write a handbook; 2) spread the message in a “religious” manner.

The book

The basis for a global approach should be a handbook or a manual. The rough outline of the content would be as follows: The science part would particularly focus on the two questions: 1) How did the universe start and developed? (i.e. to explain the big bang) 2) How did life start and developed? (i.e. to explain evolution). Then for the rationality part, all known cognitive biases (decision-making and behavioural biases, probability and belief biases, social and attributional biases, memory errors and biases) would be explained as well as methods how to overcome them. The theoretical background shall be skipped as much as possible.

The book would be unique as well as unprecedented in various ways: It should be a manual that is ideally already appropriate for primary schools because in many of the targeted countries a high percentage of children only go to primary school, if at all. Also, the book must ideally be written in a way that is understandable without teachers or through teachers who are not well educated themselves. This is because it should also be envisaged to distribute the book outside schools as well as in school environments where teachers often do not have sufficient knowledge about science and rationality either.

While the primary target group are children, it should be appealing to adolescents and adults too, who have not received such education. Hence, different versions of the book for different age groups seem to be useful. Girls and women should be equally targeted as established in article 10 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.  The manual should also be translated to relevant languages, e.g. Arabic, Swahili, Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, Mandarin, Russian, Braille etc. Moreover, science and rationality training for illiterates could be considered.

The propagation

The second task is probably even more difficult: How to create behavioural change based on the acquired knowledge? Followers of ideologies do so since they consider the principles of the ideology a just cause and deem their actions as compulsory to support the cause. This means it is not only desirable that as many people as possible learn about rationality and science, but they should also, based on what they have learned, come to the conclusion that is a just cause to follow guidelines within their individual capacity to protect humanity.

It can, obviously, not be expected that everybody will embark to tackle existential risks, although there is a likelihood that some hidden geniuses out there will be reached who were lacking proper education. The prime goal should be that the average Jane and Joe all over the developed as well as developing world not only becomes aware of the challenges in the world, but also addresses them within his or her capacity by e.g. reducing garbage, recycling, saving electricity and water. These things sound basic, but are 1) not known to everybody, 2) not treated as ideological (“religious”) rules by many who are aware about them. Given this works, still only a small minority will contribute towards solving problems, but at least the majority should not enlarge the problem (e.g. by behaving environmentally irresponsible). Imagine a world where people follow guidelines and spend time and energy how to rationally reduce the ecological footprint in the same manner as they are nowadays following other irrational ideological or religious practises.

It is said that people in developing countries do not care about issues harming the world because they have other priorities associated with basic survival (Example: A poacher who kills endangered species out of poverty.). Yet many very poor people seem to be engaged with religions, which shows that they are receptive for ideologies.

For various reasons many people consider religions as outdated, but we may as well exploit the undoubted proneness of humans to religion in order to save the planet. Also current religious behaviour is often historically based on beliefs to prevent calamities, yet in an unscientific way. The “just cause” to save and improve our lives would remain essentially the same, but in order to contribute something meaningful many people ought to be “wired” differently, ideally by the herein proposed book.

In history up to now ideologies were often malevolent, e.g. Nazis, ISIS etc. Therefore, with the same motivation as we aim for friendly AI, we can also aim for a friendly ideology with a cause that helps humanity, by copying partially the successful methodology of religions and even malevolent ideologies that have attracted people. For example, jihadists consider jihad a just cause, and billions of moderate people see their various ideologies as just causes. It is extremely desirable if people start addressing existential risks as a just cause.

For the sake of the planet, the book could be marketed as a complement to religions, i.e. without disapproving religions altogether: While the scientific topics in the book will mostly contradict what is said in religious books, the resulting doctrine on how to protect the planet can be portrayed as a supplement to religions which do not cover this topic (because they were not relevant when these religions were created).

One could argue that it is a contradiction that I propose to reach and persuade people, who have been trained to be rational, by using the same strategies as are applied for irrational ideologies. But 1) teachability of rationality is challenging to begin with, and 2) better safe than sorry: Why not borrow techniques which have been proven to be successful in attracting the masses?


Significant funding is needed to write and produce the book as well as to sustain long-term distribution and propagation. Advocacy campaigns have to be developed on how to raise the funds from institutions as well as from individuals. Crowdfunding seems to be a contemporary option. Moreover, the writing of the book could be done in wiki-style. This would have an advantage because it could be amended as scientific discoveries and rationality-teaching methods evolve. (It can be considered a weakness of other religious books that they are not updatable.)

In various places in the world it can be predicted that governments, ministries of education and other (religious) groups would oppose the book. Distribution and propagation strategies need to be developed which would include “inconspicuous” or “creative” ways to circulate it. The impression that the book stands for the “intrusion of Western culture” has to be avoided; instead, it has to be highlighted that the project is global and concerns everyone.

The final challenge is about the methodology: 1) Comprehensive teachability of rationality skills is still a work-in-progress. However, for skills that have been proven to be teachable, everyone should have the opportunity to acquire them. 2) It is difficult to determine why certain propagation techniques of religions and ideologies have become successful and others have not. Yet, it is essential to spread the message to the masses about a truly just cause in the 21st century, and how everyone can make an impact to meet the challenges. If successful, this could be a New Enlightenment.



Soenke Ziesche holds a PhD in Natural Sciences from the University of Hamburg, which he received within a Doctoral Program in Artificial Intelligence. He is also an alumnus of the Graduate Studies Program of the Singularity University. Soenke has worked in the past 15 years for the United Nations on four continents in the humanitarian and development sector.

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