The allure of conspiracy theories in a time of pandemic

By Kinga Połyńczuk-Alenius (HCAS Core Fellow)

Two people holding white paper with the text pandemic #covid19

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

I initially became interested in conspiracy theories when studying a blog of a key Polish far-right activist in the context of my Collegium research on mediated racism in Poland. Although this activist first gained public prominence and recognition during the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’ as one of the leaders of the anti-refugee movement, my analysis quickly revealed that the crux of his writing was, in fact, the elaboration of a multi-layered superconspiracy machinated by the Jews. While the timeworn leitmotiv of the Jewish cabal secretly orchestrating the course of history survives and thrives primarily – though not exclusively – in the anti-semitic far-right milieu, the current proliferation of spurious theories related to the Covid-19 pandemic lays bare the societal and political significance of conspiracy theories beyond the radical fringes. In Poland, for example, a recent survey has found that as many as 45 per cent of respondents agreed that ‘some foreign powers or countries are deliberately contributing to the spread of the coronavirus’, compared to 42 per cent who attributed the pandemic to ‘natural processes’.

With this in mind, it is as worthwhile to dispel conspiracy theories forcefully as it is to try and untangle their appeal.

Old explanations for a new situation

At the most basic level, a conspiracy theory refers to ‘the conviction that a secret, omnipotent individual or group covertly controls the political and social order or some part thereof’ (Fenster, 2008: 21). Although they might be based on kernels of truth, conspiracy theories exploit undisputable facts as a source material for questionable extrapolations. In other words, they are based on ‘the big leap from the undeniable to the unbelievable’ (Hofstadter, 1966: 38).

As a major part of the political and social (dis)order on a global scale, the ongoing pandemic has rapidly given rise to an impressive range of more or less half-baked conspiracy theories that seek to explain the situation. Symptomatically, many of them have latched onto the already existing explanations and implicated the usual scapegoats. Accordingly, it has been possible for politicians to tap into the seemingly bottomless deposit of antisemitism and represent novel coronavirus as a yet another Jewish plot to alter the world order, take control of sovereign countries and ‘neuter their populations’.

In a similar vein, White House officials have repeatedly intimated that the virus has been engineered in a Chinese lab, perhaps even as a biological weapon. This theory is a perfect illustration of a ‘curious leap of imagination’ that Hofstadter wrote about: it has been inferred from the Chinese government’s secrecy, the underestimation of the number of infections, and the underreporting of deaths. What makes this theory truly useful, though, is that it handily reinforces two anti-Chinese views at once: it confirms the malevolence and callousness of China’s pursuit of world dominance but also, through exposing the security compromises that enabled the virus to escape from the lab, it betrays characteristic Chinese incompetence.

The new villains: intangible, yet personified

More ‘grassroot’ conspiracy theories differ from those propagated by politicians in that in their search for an explanation they turn to the realm of the invisible and the intangible. In particular, the phony links between Covid-19 and technology and/or science seem to take centre stage.

In the technology department, the most popular conspiracy theory draws on 5G scaremongering. In this view, 5G technology weakens the immune system, rendering humans susceptible to viruses which, in turn, use the 5G network as a communication channel. The novel coronavirus is believed to have emerged in Wuhan because it was – counterfactually – the first city where 5G coverage was rolled out.

The next level of this conspiracy theory has been spun by the anti-vaccination movement, which eagerly combines scepticism towards (medical) science with mistrust of technology. The ‘vaccine hesitancy’ groups have piggybacked on the spurious connection between 5G and the novel coronavirus in the origin story that they have concocted for the Covid-19 pandemic. In that tale, the novel coronavirus is produced by 5G technology so as to warrant the creation of a bogus vaccine, intended not to cure the disease but rather to implant microchips through which humans could be remotely controlled.

At that stage, however, some questions still remained unanswered. Does 5G technology generate the virus autonomously? And who is supposed to take control of humanity once it has been microchipped?

A douche, with liquid dripping, photographed in front of a stash of cash

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Any conspiracy theory becomes complete when the ultimate orchestrator is unmasked. And for Covid-19 pandemic, Bill Gates emerged as the grand operator. As a vocal critic of the Trump administration, a technological mogul turned philanthropist, a zealous proponent and generous funder of vaccine development, the Microsoft co-founder is the perfect scapegoat for a crisis that emerges on the intersection of technology and (medical) science.

According to this theory, the evidence of Gates’s culpability abounds. In a 2015 TED talk, he publicly and brazenly anticipated his evil plan by criticising and revealing the shortcomings of global pandemic preparedness. He has even had the audacity to cipher his evil plan in the official name of the disease: ‘COVID-19 (C)ertificate (O)f (V)accination (ID)entification – (1)=A (9)=I “Artificial Intelligence“.’ Already all-powerful, Gates is set to benefit from the pandemic, and the vaccine it brings about, in two ways: through garnering financial profit and enslaving humanity.

The discreet appeal of conspiracy theories

Predictably, the conspiracy theories related to the Covid-19 pandemic are based on evidence that is circumstantial at best and, more often than not, simply absurd. As such, they have been repeatedly debunked, declared a public health hazard, and ridiculed. Yet, the old plots still circulate, and the new ones continuously emerge, in social media and certain legacy media alike. We must then ask: what currency do conspiracy theories have in contemporary information-rich societies?

Crucially, not only are conspiracy theories a conviction or a set of beliefs, they also fulfil certain cognitive and psychological needs which are otherwise unmet in times of crisis.

Firstly, a conspiracy theory is a mode of cognitive mapping: an attempt to disentangle a complex situation through concocting a graspable, though not necessarily plausible or logical, explanation (Fenster, 2008; Jameson, 1988). Thus, the belief in conspiracy theory helps people to make sense of and navigate a confusing and inhospitable reality (Bale, 2007: 51).

In the case of Covid-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories provide complete, simple, seemingly rationalistic and watertight explanations. This is in stark contrast to the available scientific knowledge – complex, fragmented, changeable and contested – and to the actions of political decision-makers and state authorities, which appear haphazard and self-contradictory. Accepting that the pandemic has a singular cause (technological/military experiments), however absurd, might be more manageable than coming to terms with the complexity of the situation in which too many variables remain unknown.

Secondly, a conspiracy theory functions as a (maladaptive) coping mechanism. Under circumstances of social change, upheaval or crisis, conspiracy theories serve to grasp a rapidly unfolding situation that has a bearing on one’s life but is beyond individual control (van Prooijen and Douglas, 2017). To do that, such theories often rely on spurious new evidence to confirm what is already known, namely a superstition or a prejudice (Byford, 2011). By outsourcing blame onto the usual suspects, conspiracy theories enable people to rationalise, albeit in a way that does not stand to reason, their present difficulties (Bale, 2007). Accordingly, conspiracy theories provide a way for those who view themselves as innocent victims of the pandemic to explain their predicament as having a known, identifiable and evil source, be it the Jewish plot, Chinese incompetence, or Bill Gates’s machinations.

Thirdly, and relatedly, conspiracy theories are a paradoxical way partly to overcome the feeling of powerlessness (Bale, 2007). By denouncing culprits, individuals can reassert their own agency: while in the know, they are able to act on the previously incomprehensible and overpowering situation. If one believes that Bill Gates is single-handedly responsible for Covid-19 and the ensuing pandemic, taking to Instagram and bombarding Gates’s profile with accusatory messages might seem like a reasonable and potentially effective course of action.

Taking all the above into account, ad-hoc factual refutations and emotional dismissals might not do much to dispel the allure of conspiracy theories. In times of crisis, conspiracy theories will always be a step ahead of carefully crafted, evidence-based theories in providing an overarching, rationalistic, simple and, therefore, compelling explanation.

While I do not claim to have any practical pointers on how exactly to combat the adverse effects of conspiracy theories, it seems to me that a more effective way to do so would be to enable general public to accept, and cope with, the complexity and unpredictability of the world. Admittedly, this would require some sweeping changes in political communication, media crisis reporting as well as schooling and education, to name but a few examples.

Portrait of Kinga Połyńczuk-Alenius

Kinga Połyńczuk-Alenius (Photo by Tero Alenius)

References

Bale JM (2007) Political paranoia v political realism: On distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics. Patterns of Prejudice 41(1): 45-60.

Byford J (2011) Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fenster M (2008) Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (2nd edition). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hofstadter R (1966) The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Jameson F (1988) Cognitive mapping. In C Nelson and L Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, pp. 347-357.

van Prooijen J-W and Douglas KM (2017). Conspiracy theories as part of history: The role of societal crisis situations. Memory Studies 10(3): 323-333.

On Excellence

By Tuomas Forsberg

The stated mission of the Helsinki Collegium is to carry out high-level research in the humanities and social sciences. Given this key purpose, it is essential that in the international research assessment of the entire University of Helsinki in 2019 that focused on the past decade, the Collegium received the grade of “excellent” for both the quality of research and the research environment. As excellence ought to be recognised by others, it is important that what we say we are aligns with what we do.

So I would like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessors and all our former fellows who have contributed to this success.

We may, of course, ask how excellent is “excellent”. Something would be terribly wrong with the concept of an institute of advanced study if the Collegium were not recognised as a better research environment than teaching units and if the quality of the research environment did not translate into quality of research. However, following the academic good practice of doubt and self-criticism, there is no justification for resting on one’s laurels. Even excellence can be improved.

Societal impact from the bottom up

The Collegium received the grade “very good” in the assessment of societal impact. “Very good” is not a bad achievement but already literally a very good result. Yet, given the available resources, to what extent can we realistically improve our societal impact without also jeopardising our excellence in research? Many institutes for advanced study worldwide have reckoned that the old idea of the “usefulness of useless research” is not sufficient. Accordingly, they have started to pay more attention to societal impact to meet the expectations or even demands of the authorities, funding bodies and sponsors.

The Collegium’s visibility and outreach have emerged both locally and internationally. For example, it has been active in social media, through blogs and in public events organised at the new Think Corner of the University of Helsinki and streamed worldwide.

Speakers of the spring 2019 Kollegium Talks on Think Corner Stage

Public Kollegium Talks event “Unexpected turns in research paths”, with Erkko Professor Jane Cowan, Core Fellows Michael Langlois and Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz and Research Coordinator Kaisa Kaakinen on the Think Corner Stage, March 11, 2019 (Photo: Minerva Juolahti)

However, probably the best way for the Collegium to foster societal impact is by facilitating the activities of its researchers. Just as the research carried out at the Collegium is bottom-up by nature, so should its societal impact be. Given that Collegium researchers are exempt from major administrative and teaching duties, they can in fact address new topical issues much faster of their own initiative as well as find more time for societal interaction. Many researchers already know how they can reach out to the relevant audiences. In addition, some researchers are better positioned for societal interaction than others. Moreover, research and societal interaction are typically sequential, since impact is based on research that first has to be carried out. Therefore a kind of division of labour should apply to institutions. Given the diversity of fields and issues represented at the Collegium, it is not easy to identify a core audience other than those interested in knowing what is going on and what is new in academic research in the wide sense.

Can impact be measured?

Societal impact, while definitely important, is difficult to measure reliably. In fact, attempts to do so, particularly when it affects funding directly, may lead to unintended consequences. As is well-known, measuring the societal impact of academic research is difficult because that it may take a long time before the impact becomes visible, and it is often impossible to attribute the impact of scientific knowledge to particular research outcomes. A related question is whether we should reward research that could or should have had an impact, but has failed to have one. Politicians and other decision-makers still make choices on the basis of their preferences and they may discard the scientific evidence. What if we reward outcome, in other words research that has had impact, but for reasons that may have nothing to do with the quality of research? Scholars are expected to be active in the society and broaden their expertise beyond their own academic research. We should reward researchers for their societal impact based on their scholarly expertise, but it is very difficult to do so without rewarding them also for their societal impact that is based on mere civic activism. By the same token, there is no objective way of separating good impact from bad. And even if there were a clear definition of societal impact, it can remain a secret:  some of the most significant instances of societal impact – when advice is given to key decision-makers – are not meant to be publicly acknowledged.

Societal impact should definitely be part of the academic ethos that guides our research. This should not imply that research should be evaluated in terms of its short-term goal or that the societal impact of research can be measured accurately. Moreover, there is no contradiction in claiming that we should pay attention to the societal impact of research, and that we still need places where that is not the primary concern. The more universities and research institutes are required to demonstrate their relevance by addressing immediate societal concerns defined in a top-down manner, the more important it becomes that at least some institutes can focus on basic, curiosity-driven research.

Group photo of Helsinki Collegium fellows standing outside on grass

HCAS Fellows and staff in September 2019 (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

Tuomas Forsberg has been the Director of HCAS since August 2018.

This article has also been published in the HCAS Newsletter 2019-2020.

The makings of early Islamic identity

By Ilkka Lindstedt (HCAS alumni)

During 2016–2019, Ilkka Lindstedt was a Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. In this piece, he presents some results of his Collegium project “Early Islamic inscriptions as historical sources” and demonstrates that the development of a distinct Islamic identity was slower than what has commonly been thought in scholarship on early Islam.

Fred M. Donner begins his 2002–2003 article “From Believers to Muslims: Confessional Self-Identity in the Early Islamic Community” (Al-Abhath 50–51: pp. 9–53) as follows:

Studies of early Islam, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, have almost without exception taken as axiomatic that Islam from its earliest days constituted a separate religious confession distinct from others – in particular, distinct from Judaism, Christianity, Magianism, and of course from the mushrikūn, those who “associate other beings with God.”

In this article and later studies (particularly his monograph Muhammad and the Believers, 2010), Donner has questioned this idea of a distinct Islamic identity during the life of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632 CE) and some decades later. As his evidence, he uses early dated and datable sources, such as the Qur’an, Arabic coins and inscriptions, as well as Syriac texts.

Photo by Ilkka Lindstedt

Fig. 1: The beginning of the fifth surah of the Qur’an, photo by Ilkka Lindstedt

First, he points out that the community seems to have lacked a proper name in its beginning. The in-group appellation used by the early sources is muʾminūn, “believers,” scarcely a word that would differentiate the community from Jews and Christians, who also called themselves believers. Second, Donner notes that the Qur’an and some other early sources often present the “People of the Book,” that is, Jews and Christians, favorably and as belonging to the community of the believers (though the evidence is conflicting and stereotypical and othering views of the Jews and Christians are present too).

For example, Qur’an 3:113–114 states: “There are some among the People of the Book who are upright, who recite God’s revelations during the night, who bow down in worship, who believe in God and the Last Day, who order what is right and forbid what is wrong, who are quick to do good deeds. These people are among the righteous” (transl. Abdul Haleem).

Thus, Donner argues, it is probable that the early community of believers included people from distinct backgrounds: Jews, Christians, gentiles, and others who accepted the stringent monotheism of the community and the Qur’an as a new revelation adding to but not necessarily supplanting earlier revelations. To use the terminology of social psychology, the believer affiliation that the Qur’an articulated and put forward was a recategorized and superordinate identity that did not exclude religious sub-identities.

According to Donner, it was toward the end of the seventh century – around 50 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad – that Islamic identity properly speaking started to be articulated. This occurred through e.g. discoursal processes where the believers adopted the names “Muslims” and “people of Islam” as their in-group designations and drew the border with Jews, Christians, and others by emphasizing the overarching signification of the Prophet Muhammad and rituals that were specific to Islam.

Arabic inscriptions and the “parting of the ways”

Fred Donner’s hypothesis of the late “parting of the ways” (to borrow a concept from early Christian studies) has been received with both appraisal and criticism. In any case, his studies have been widely read, and even those critical of the argument have had to react to them.

To test Donner’s hypothesis, I conducted, during my Collegium Fellowship (2016–2019), a systematic analysis of early dated Islamic-era Arabic inscriptions engraved or painted on stone. These are a unique corpus of evidence, because it is

a) produced by the members of the community of the believers, so it does not suffer from outsider stereotypes;
b) produced by both elite and lay people;
c) often absolutely dated by the writers;
d) the inscriptions are religious in nature and hence proffer information on how the believers perceived and articulated their religiousness and religious identity.

For a comprehensive examination of the available evidence, I collected the (around one hundred) published Arabic inscriptions dated to 640s–740s CE, a period when other sources are scarce. I reread, translated, and analyzed the inscriptions. My study will be published as an article entitled “Who Is in, Who Is out? Early Muslim Identity through Epigraphy and Theory” (Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 46, 2019). As my analytical framework, I used the social identity theory, promulgated in social psychology since the 1970s.

The Arabic inscriptions, I submit, provide evidence corroborating Donner’s suggestion. If anything, the inscriptions suggest that the Islamic identity-formation process was slower than Donner put forward in his article, with identity negotiation and permeable borders being attested in the epigraphic texts well into the eighth century CE.

To summarize my findings, the corpus of dated Arabic inscriptions attests indeterminate pious formulae up to the 690s CE, when the first instances of the emphasis on the Prophet Muhammad surface in the texts. In the 700s–720s, there are first mentions of specifically Muslim rites such as pilgrimage, prayer, and fasting. Moreover, it is in the 720s–730s when the words Muslims and Islam began to become consolidated as references to the in-group, supplanting the more ambivalent “believers.”

In my article, I suggest that it is around these decades (720s–730s CE) when we should date the “parting of the ways.” That is to say, since that time most Muslims have categorized themselves as being separate from other religious identifications, such as Jews and Christians, though intergroup contact and influence naturally continued throughout the centuries.

The Qaṣr Kharrāna inscription (710 CE)

As an example, let us cite the following text. It is written in ink on the wall of a building nowadays known as Qaṣr Kharrāna, in Jordan. The text is written by someone named ʿAbd al-Malik ibn ʿUmar; the inscription is dated to 710 CE. The ink is badly damaged today (see Fig. 2, around the center of the photo, for the inscription), but most of the text is still decipherable.

Photo by Hannu Aukia

Fig. 2, photo by Hannu Aukia

“O God, have mercy on ʿAbd al-Malik ibn ʿUmar and forgive him his earlier and later sins and those that he made public and kept secret and those that You know best; he … if you do not forgive me and have mercy on me, I will be among the losers [Quran 11:47]; my Lord, You bestow benefactions upon me, for You are certainly the Benefactor; and You have mercy on me, for You are certainly the Merciful; I ask You that You accept from him his supplication and prayer; amen, Lord of the world, Lord of Moses and Aaron [Quran 26:47-48]; may God have mercy on who recites it [the inscription] and then says, ‘amen, amen, Lord …, the Mighty, the Great’; and ʿAbd al-Malik ibn ʿUmar wrote [this inscription] on Monday, al-Muḥarram 27, in the year ninety-two.”
[AH = November 24, 710 CE]

The writer asks God to forgive his sins and have mercy on him, among other things. The inscription contains some Qur’anic quotations and adaptations (referring to Qur’an 11:47 and 26:47–48), but apart from that there is nothing we might call Islamic identity signaling (and even the Qur’anic passages cited do not include anything that would not be acceptable to Jews and Christians). The writer does not mention the Prophet Muhammad, but instead refers to Moses and Aaron, figures that are venerated by Jews and Christians too.

Religious categorizations and pluralism in early Islam and modern Islamic thought

All in all, the epigraphic record, complimented with other contemporary evidence, show us that the Muslim affiliation came together around one hundred years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad through the construction of perceived shared ideology, social history, scripture, practices, and other common features. It should also be noted that Muslims were, for many centuries, a minority group in the Near East, conversion to Islam being very slow.

The issues of religious categorizations, inter-religious dialogue, and pluralism have been revisited in the modern era by many Muslim scholars. There is an ample literature on these questions. To mention one example, Jerusha Lamptey’s book Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism (2014) tackles the question of religious categorizations head-on. She offers an insightful reading of the Qur’an that is in agreement with the idea of pluralism, suggesting that according to the Qur’anic categorizations the differences between religious groups are lateral rather than hierarchical.

She notes (p. 165) that “all revelation and messengers share a common goal of teaching people about God, of guiding them to correct practice, and of warning them of individual accountability and the Day of Judgment.” Since the Qur’an rarely mentions the Prophet Muhammad by name and more often simply talks of a messenger (rasūl) or the messenger (al-rasūl), Lamptey (p. 250) interprets that “in the Qurʾān all people are called to obey a messenger but they are not all called to obey the same messenger.”

Social categorizations are subject to change, if need be, as well as to social and historical context. Fred Donner has put forward a bold and intriguing hypothesis as to how early Islamic identity was articulated and established. In my article, I suggest that the evidence of Arabic inscriptions and social psychological analysis agree with the claims of Donner’s studies. This line of research requires naturally more probing and refining and comparisons with Arabic literature (which is, however, not contemporary but later). An increasing number of Arabic inscriptions and papyri, for example, are published every year, and scholars must take them into account. Furthermore, the studies on early Islamic identity that have been carried out so far do not discuss geographical and other contexts in detail. It is to be supposed that social categorizations functioned in divergent ways in different regions and environment. Hopefully, with more sources available, it will be possible to study the makings of Islamic identities in all of their variety.

 

Making of: Moral Machines

By Susanna Lindberg & Hanna-Riikka Roine

As our contemporary world is increasingly digitalized, the ethical, moral and political issues it encompasses require our immediate attention. Technology can no longer be considered as a mere tool since it has a significant effect on both its users and the surrounding environment as well. This can be seen, for example, in the way we assign new tasks to our computers every day. Needless to say, digitalization has been extremely useful in science, technology, economy and everyday life; despite this, however, we also need to examine our relationship to digitalization with a critical eye.

Moral Machines? Ethics and Politics of the Digital World conference began as an idea to bring together N. Katherine Hayles (Duke University) and Bernard Stiegler (University of Compiègne), the two prominent scholars examining the constantly increasing digitalization of our society. After they agreed to come, we started drafting the overall plan for the conference and quickly realised the vastness of the topic. The development of technology and digitalization are phenomena which comprehensively shape our society, and it is for this reason that such phenomena should be examined in an interdisciplinary context.

N. Katherine Hayles giving her keynote lecture at Think Corner (Photo: Minerva Juolahti)

Furthermore, we saw an urgent need to reflect upon the moral and political implications of digitalization, not only the technological aspects. This is why we not only wanted to appeal to scholars from multiple different fields, but also to create an arena focusing on the humanities and social sciences perspectives. On top of that, we wanted to include an artistic programme.

Initially, Moral Machines was supposed to be a much smaller symposium, but after the call for papers closed, we had received so many good proposals for papers that the symposium doubled in size. This is also why we ended up having six keynotes in a fairly small conference: besides Hayles and Stiegler, we had contacted Erich Hörl (Leuphana University of Lüneburg), Maria Mäkelä (Tampere University), Frédéric Neyrat (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Francois-David Sebbah (Paris Nanterre University) about joining us.

Susanna Lindberg and Hanna-Riikka Roine opening the conference (Photo: Minerva Juolahti)

Due to the wide variety of perspectives to the topics of the conference, the first day of the conference was dedicated to fiction, media and art, while the following two days had parallel session tracks focusing on philosophical and sociological discussions. The presentations ranged from fictional representations of moral machines and the understanding of social media as a moralistic storytelling machine to discussions of various uses of data and theories of thinking and knowledge in the digital world.

The first day culminated in the artistic evening programme organised on the Tiedekulma Stage, with Otso Huopaniemi’s performance, Riikka Talvitie’s composition for the solo clarinette of Fàtima Boix, and the performance of Black Mödernism, a group consisting of the poets Matti Kangaskoski, Eino Santanen ja Tuomas Timonen. The artistic programme proved out to be a real success. As many of the people participating in both the sessions and artistic programme of the conference pointed out, the performances engaged the same questions as the academic presentations but from a completely different – and therefore refreshing – angle.

black mödernism’s self-directing “A to B Networking Collective” presents: “A:sta B:hen. / From A to B. Kaksiarvoinen moraaliesitelmä / Binary Moral Presentation.” (Photo: Minerva Juolahti)

The conference had almost 120 registered participants, and many more came by to catch the keynote talks and sessions and watch the artists perform. From our perspective, everything went quite well, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Moral Machines confirmed the fact that while the challenges that digitalization poses are complex and numerous, they are being addressed and examined within various different fields. To our delight, Moral Machines was able to bring some of these together in a way that easily surpassed the instinctive digiphilia or digiphobia. In the end, it appears that most presenters rejected the idea that ethical, moral and political responsibilities could be delegated to machines only (as in the famous “moral machine” experiment. However, in the contemporary world, digital systems affect all existential and social situations, either because computing itself takes over certain affective tasks, or because ethics and politics take an active stance to technological frameworks and human-machine assemblages. No doubt, in order to follow the transformations of ethics and politics in a digital world it is useful to assembly expertise from different areas, as the conference was able to do.

Some Thoughts on the Helsinki Collegium

By Tuomas Forsberg

More than one month has passed since I began as director of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. The first month has been extremely busy but also very rewarding: the new fellows arrived just a fortnight after me and the new academic term has started at full speed.

Photo by Veikko Somerpuro

Director Tuomas Forsberg with the Fellows and staff of the Helsinki Collegium in September 2018 (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

The HCAS is a wonderful, unique place as an interface of international scholars and interdisciplinary research in the field of humanities and social sciences, including law, theology and education – the five faculties of the City Centre campus in Helsinki. My own background is in political science and international relations, but I realized that I have many close academic friends in all these fields, and I have published at least one article in anthologies edited by a researcher from each of the five faculties of the City Centre campus. In fact, back in the late 1980s when I was a University of Helsinki student, I also completed at least some courses in all these faculties (yes, even in theology). And not only that: I cannot escape thinking that I have grown up alongside all the above broad disciplines: my parents were theologians, my dear aunt and godmother was a philologist, my aunts and uncles teachers, and one uncle – as well as my wife – lawyers.

Time for Research and Collaboration

The mission of the HCAS is in line with the key idea of advanced studies institutes to produce top-class research that crosses disciplinary boundaries and creates something original. This often means applying the metaphor of building: we do not tear down an old house and quickly build something new and different; instead, we solidify the building’s foundations so that the house can be renovated. For that, fellows need time to focus on their research and the freedom to develop their own agendas.

The HCAS also needs to be a community. A strong identity and esprit de corps has been a strength of the institute in the past, and without a sense of community the whole HCAS idea would be lost. The joy of research comes from discoveries and findings that are often very subjective moments, but no researcher would be able to achieve much alone. Although researchers in the humanities and social sciences often have their own projects, sharing ideas with others is crucial. HCAS fellows come to the institute as individuals, but they hopefully leave with many friends and partnerships that might even be more important in the long term than the research carried out during the fellowship.

The HCAS mission also includes collaboration with the university faculties. Although the point of the HCAS is to enable scholars to focus on their research, “splendid isolation” may distract the younger fellows from taking the necessary next steps towards teaching positions. Many researchers based in the faculties would also be very happy to get even a glimpse of a famous scholar who has landed at the HCAS for a year.

The Three Fs, or the Core Elements of Research

This balance between focusing on research and internal activities vs. teaching and outreach is a longstanding issue often to do with perception and visibility rather than substance. Having a strong esprit de corps is not the same as being inward-looking. Even if the HCAS’s mission concerns the area of basic research rather than policy-oriented knowledge, it can still be vitally important in many different ways. A good example of how the HCAS can be “useful” and reach wider audiences was to promote the lectures on “useless knowledge” that in fact became very popular.

When I was the acting director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs 20 years ago, we used to describe three core elements of research with three Finnish words starting with H: hyvää (good), hauskaa (fun) and hyödyllistä (useful). I wonder what would be the best translation of this slogan. Maybe three Fs: research should be fun, functional and freaking good!

One feature of the HCAS known widely in Finland has been to reflect academic practices and contribute to debates on science policy. Here, I see no reason to change course, and I hope that this blog can find readers and contributors and in this domain as well.

Tuomas Forsberg (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

Tuomas Forsberg (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)