Prominent scientist: “One-fifth of people will believe anything”

Emeritus Professor Esko Valtaoja says the internet is like an endless ocean of knowledge – but there is plenty of rubbish to be found in the deep. In a television appearance Wednesday morning, the recently retired quasar researcher and award-winning writer encouraged everyone to take a month-long break from social media.

Esko Valtaoja
Esko Valtaoja retired from his Emeritus Professor position at the University of Turku last autumn. Image: Yle

Some people say traditional authority in Finland is crumbling: the media is in transition, the church is in crisis, the authority of the police and teachers is being called into question and judicial decisions are increasingly at odds with the public’s sense of justice.

Professor and public figure Esko Valtaoja discussed these societal changes in a morning television appearance on February 10.

He says a certain opposition to institutional knowledge is always in vogue among certain segments of society, and adds that science is a methodological attempt to gain information about the material world.

“None of us are crazy about data that flies in the face of our own strong prejudices,” he says. ”Even indisputable facts tend to lose some of their scientific credibility if our gut feeling tells us something’s not right.”

Finlandia prize winner

Valtaoja retired from the University of Turku’s astronomy department in September 2015. He has been an active participant in Finland’s public debate since winning the Finlandia Prize for non-fiction in 2002.

During his television appearance, Professor Valtaoja said that he believes that one out of every five people will “believe anything”. What they believe in often varies from one period of time to another.

“Angels are in fashion now and UFOs are out. I wonder where all the UFO believers have gone to? What will come after the angels? Maybe ghosts will be the next big thing that 20 percent of people, or perhaps closer to one-sixth of the population, will believe in,” he wagers.

He says research shows that the clear majority of the population nevertheless have faith in science and evidence-based research, and that only a small percentage of people think otherwise. As proof, Valtaoja says that universities have continued to be highly valued in Finland, even as other time-honoured institutions are losing their sway.

“There are no absolute truths”

The information revolution has now made more data available in contemporary society than people have time to consume in a lifetime. Valtaoja says that for a long time, it was easy to believe that there were certain absolute truths, because information was much harder to find.

There are still people who believe in absolutes, he says, but they are quickly becoming the minority.

“We jump about rather nervously trying to ascertain the truth, even in this matter,” he says.

The easy availability of information ultimately leads to positive outcomes, like all things in the world, after all the twists and turns, Valtaoja comments.

“Even if we stop in one place to pick our noses, or encounter setbacks, do nothing at all or make appalling mistakes, we always seem to find the right way to move forward in the end.”  

30-day detox

He had one piece of advice to Finnish residents during his interview.

“Social media has exploded into something beyond our control. We’ve begun to believe that it is the best source of the latest information. But at the end of the day, it is no better than small-town gossip. True knowledge, that precious new piece of information there among all the nonsense, is very hard to find.”

He says the internet can be equated to an endless ocean of knowledge, but there’s also plenty of rubbish to be found.

“It’s like I’ve always said: Just quit social media for a month. Read a book. You’ll see: your world will begin to look remarkably different.” 

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