How to get science out of its ivory tower

“New technologies are good, and so are books. Images and evocative sounds are good, but words are better, and best of all is the magical world of the imagination,» says Professor Georgios Dertilis, as he opens up the portal to his own world of science, research and history. The occasion was the inauguration on February 17 of the Ongoing Research and Postgraduate Seminar to be held in Athens once a month. The first meeting, inaugurated by Dertilis, was a great success, attended by a great number of teachers and students. It was jointly organized by the Historical Archive of Athens University and the Paris Ecole de Hautes Etudes en Sciences Socials, where Dertilis is now a professor, after long tenure at Athens University (since 1978). Dertilis, who is well-informed about international developments in tertiary education – he has been a visiting professor at Harvard, Oxford and the European University Institute in Florence and has been a full member of the European Academy of Sciences since 1989 – spoke to Kathimerini about the European educational scene, new technology and the role of the scientist. What does this seminar have to offer Greek scientists and students? We hope this seminar will become a permanent institution. There have been great changes in the social sciences over the past 50 years, and we are still at the beginning. Greek scientists and students will get to know foreign experts, come into contact with their evolving thought and the new research methods they propose. The Greeks will see how their counterparts abroad tackle problems similar to those that we examine when we study Greek society and Greek history. And all of this is in practice, because the people we invite will present their work in progress, their living research, as an example, as it evolves day by day. This alone is of immense benefit. Are there overtures from the Greek scientific community to its counterparts abroad? Not many and, unfortunately, we don’t have many opportunities for that. The trend toward comparative studies opens up new paths, allowing us to look at and investigate human societies and their history in a broader context. In contrast, the focus on a purely Greek approach is dangerously isolationist and can lead us into narrow perceptions and sterile interpretations. We all know how Greek society enjoys navel-gazing and tends to see Greece as the center of the world. I’m not saying that all Greek students and researchers have such an outlook – far from it, luckily. Most of us have moved beyond that suffocating self-absorption. On the other hand, however, I can also see the dangers. Like it or not, it is in this closed context, this atmosphere, that Greek researchers and students live. The easy way out is to stick to that way of thinking, to follow that mentality. I think what can save us from taking the easy way out is frequent contact with the newest and best that is taking place in the international scientific community. What about Greeks who study abroad? That’s a different story. Students who cannot study outside Greece and who do their postgraduate studies here are usually very capable, well-read young people who are eager for contact with the outside world but are deprived of it. And many colleagues – teachers and researchers – feel equally deprived. Is the seminar part of the concept of educational exchanges within the EU? Is it related to the new planning for European educational systems? Not in any direct or institutional way. We have no connection with European programs, even though the seminar is a good example of intra-European thinking, as well as being at the highest level of university education. And that is because the seminar has been organized along a very clear notion of exchange, networking, high mobility, crossing borders and overcoming the limitations presented by languages, mentalities, established scientific perceptions and prejudices. How can new technologies help make historical science attractive in an era like ours? That depends on what is attractive to those we want to attract. We live in an era dominated by 10-second television sound bites. Scientists won’t change the interests and tastes of the majority of people who watch these on the screen by using 10-second arguments. But that doesn’t mean that we must adapt to those tastes no matter what. What should scientists do, retreat to an ivory tower? Isn’t that a form of snobbery or elitism? I don’t think so. Nor am I in favor of scientific isolationism. I believe that social scientists, who are usually citizens and political animals, have corresponding responsibilities. But they have to find their own way, as adults. Without elitism or excessive abstruseness. No compromises at the expense of science, and no deification of new technologies. New technologies are good, and so are books. Images and evocative sounds are good, but words are better, and best of all is the magical world of the imagination. Science can and must be popularized. I use the word, even though I don’t like it – there’s something condescending about it. But science should be popularized with great care and respect. All our fellow citizens are potential consumers of the science we produce. But every potential consumer is also a person worthy of respect. They are not by definition illiterates or half-wits to be looked down upon by us scientists with our digital technology. They are potential viewers and listeners, but they need good viewing and good listening. Moreover, they are always potential readers. Why? Because understanding scientific discourse requires contemplation and critical thought, so there is always a need, an absolute need, for reading. You didn’t say specifically how historical science can be made attractive. It will be attractive as art. History is partly art, and that is why history is both a gift and a curse. Science always presupposes an interpretation. History always presupposes a narrative, at least a minimal one. In history, the weft of scientific interpretation is woven over a narrative warp. But narrative is a question of an aesthetic nature. An ugly narrative means mediocre history. Aesthetics is part of the definition of history. What am I saying? It’s the very soul of history.