On 14th March 2018, the world sadly lost not only a brilliant and respected scientist who courageously triumphed over his own debilitating handicap, but also a highly valued sustainability ambassador and guide amongst the general chaos of thought leadership today. In learning this morning of Stephen Hawking’s demise at the age of 76, I recalled a favorite quote that is often attributed to him (but not proven to be something that he actually ever said):
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”
Even if this great man never said this, it is a fine reflection of the underlying principle of his work and teachings. Nowadays, propagating an “illusion of knowledge” is a risk that all business schools need to take seriously. We live in an age when “fake news” is being purposely fed into information feedback loops, even by world leaders of democratic societies (I am purposely not mentioning any names!). We are witnessing an unprecedented era where truthful news outlets and honest agencies are easily undermined with accusations of fakery capable of sowing seeds of societal doubt around even scientifically proven facts. Indeed, fake news proliferates in today’s avalanche of information, creating an illusion of knowledge whereas in fact, we are sometimes being kept in ignorance. How can we see the wood for the trees? How do you fight against the “illusion of knowledge” enemy? We need to be ever more vigilant about developing skills in our BSL students that help them to critically assess content that uses new media forms, determine deeper meaning to events and language, properly “join the dots” and understand the world around them based on expert exploration and observation of facts, not fiction.
The vision and purpose of BSL is built around a pragmatic view that there are scientific and social realities – fact, not fiction – that the business world, and thus business people need to catapult to the top of their strategic priority list. Climate change mitigation and adaptation, for example, are amongst these critical realities. When the United States dropped out of the Paris climate agreement, Hawking was one of many credible voices to react, armed with the sheer weight of his own profound scientific knowledge. He wryly observed that Trump’s actions would certainly cause damage to our beautiful planet, and would ultimately bring humanity much closer to a tipping point where the Earth’s systems would break down, disabling humanity’s existence, and ultimately coming to resemble the inhospitable system of planet Venus. Remember that Hawking was a harbinger of doom, suggesting in 2016 that humanity would ultimately have no choice but to find an alternative planet to live on within the following 1000 years. He controversially modified this projection to 100 years just six months later, saying that escalating conflicts, development of militarized technology, weapons of mass destruction, threats from artificial intelligence and general geopolitics had massively increased the likelihood of collapse.
The objective of seeking another host planet for humanity is squarely on the agenda of one of the world’s most recognizable business figures today, Elon Musk, who also suspects that humanity may be doomed for the same reasons outlined by Hawking. His project to colonize Mars has the laudable aim of creating a safety net for humanity (preferably making money, and lots of it, at the same time….). However, the best hope for survival of humanity is still to act on the looming threat of climate change right here and now. For Hawking, we had already reached the eleventh hour, but it was still not too late. As he said in 2017: “Climate change is one of the great dangers we face, and it’s one we can prevent if we act now. “
Stephen Hawking was a brilliant ambassador for the thousands of scientists in the world that have placed their knowledge about the reasons for, effects of and solutions to climate change at the disposal of the business community. He knew that the illusion of believing that climate change was not happening was a force to fight against. Despite his own physical immobility, he also knew he could mobilize people by using his credible and highly respected voice. He exercised that power responsibly and sensitively. We join with many in the academic community that mourn the loss of such a spokesperson in a world where true and authentic leadership is increasingly rare and questioned.
Author: Dr. Aileen Ionescu-Somers
Active in thought leadership, consulting, applied research, teaching and supervising DBA candidates in sustainability & responsibility.