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2018: Knowledge and information

The Potential and Peril of Human Intelligence

We have come a long way from the religions, myths and foundation stories that created the bedrock of man’s early understanding of the world and everything in it, and our stock of knowledge has increased exponentially in recent times.

In this seminar, leading scholars in the arts and sciences discuss how knowledge and information have been preserved and transferred throughout history, bringing us up to today’s digital age and the multiple challenges it presents, not least with regard to our personal data.

Amid growing tension between a ‘cognitive elite’ and those who feel excluded from public discourse and decision making, alongside increasing friction in academia over freedom of interpretation and expression, will our information society turn out to be an era of enlightenment or are we entering a new dark age for knowledge?


The Origins of Knowledge

Mark Pagel: The Origins of Knowledge and Innovation – You Are Not As Clever As You Think

Professor of Evolutionary Biology, University of Reading

Mark Pagel is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Reading, head of the university’s Evolutionary Biology Group and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the editor-in-chief of the award-winning Oxford Encyclopedia of Evolution and co-author of The Comparative Method in Evolutionary Biology. Widely published in the journals Nature and Science, he is also the author of Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind.

Mark Plotkin: How We Know What We Do Not Know

Former Research Associate in ethnobotanical conservation, Botanical Museum of Harvard University

Mark Plotkin has led the Amazon Conservation Team and guided its vision since 1996, when he co-founded the organisation. Dr Plotkin has previously served as research associate in ethnobotanical conservation at the Botanical Museum of Harvard University, and director of plant conservation at the World Wide Fund for Nature. His most recent book is The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know. In 2019, he received the Shinagel Award for Public Service from Harvard University.

John Hemming: Is Modern Information Better Than Pre-Literate Knowledge?

PhD, Independent Historian

John Hemming was director of the Royal Geographical Society in London for twenty-one years. His expeditions in Amazonia include four in unexplored forests; leadership of the largest European-organised rainforest research programme (with 150 scientists and fifty forest technicians); and visits to forty-five indigenous groups, four at first contact. His books include a 2,100-page trilogy on the history of Brazilian indigenous peoples, and The Conquest of the Incas.

Jessica Frazier: Mythic Headlines, Epic Wikipedia: Spreading the News (and How to Use It) in Global Cultures

Lecturer at University of Oxford and the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies

Jessica Frazier is a lecturer at Oxford University and the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. She explores philosophical themes of ontology, selfhood and flourishing across cultures. She is the founding editor of the Journal of Hindu Studies, contributes to British media, and her books include Hindu Worldviews: Theories of Self, Ritual and Divinity; Categorisation in Indian Philosophy: Thinking Inside the Box and Reality, Religion, and Passion: Indian and Western Approaches in Hans-Georg Gadamer and Rupa Gosvami.

Collecting Knowledge

Richard Miles: Measuring Knowledge and Fashioning the Past: The Roman Re-creation of Ancient Carthage

Professor of Roman History and Archaeology and Vice Provost at the University of Sydney

Richard Miles is Professor of Roman History and Archaeology and Vice Provost at the University of Sydney. He was previously a fellow in Ancient History at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge, and a Newton Trust lecturer in the Faculty of Classics. He has written and presented documentaries for the BBC, including Ancient Worlds and Archaeology: a secret history. His books include The Donatist Schism: Controversy and Contexts and The Bir Messaouda Basilica: Pilgrimage and the Transformation of an Urban Landscape in Sixth Century AD Carthage, the latter of which he co-authored with Simon Greenslade.

Erica Benner: Knowledge Without Authority

Former Fellow in Political Philosophy

Erica Benner is a political philosopher who has held academic posts at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford; the London School of Economics and Yale University. She obtained a DPhil at Oxford in 1993, and is the author of Really Existing Nationalisms: A Post-Communist View from Marx and Engels; Machiavelli’s Ethics; Machiavelli’s Prince: A New Reading and Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography.

Peter Burke: ‘An Endangered Species’? The Polymath in the Age of Specialization

Emeritus Professor of Cultural History, Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge

Peter Burke was Professor Emeritus of Cultural History at the University of Cambridge from 1979 to 2004, and he remains a life fellow of Emmanuel College. He is a fellow of the British Academy, a member of the Academia Europaea, and has received honorary doctorates from the universities of Lund, Copenhagen, Bucharest, Zurich, Brussels and Oviedo. His books include A Social History of Knowledge and What is Cultural History? He is currently writing a social history of ignorance.

Nathan Shachar: Is there Ethical Progress in Science?

Journalist and author

Nathan Shachar studied Arabic, philosophy and Spanish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His collections of essays have received the most prestigious Swedish literary awards, including the Övralid Prize in 2014. His works in English include The Gaza Strip: Its History and Politics from the Pharaohs to the Israeli Invasion of 2009 and The Lost World of Rhodes: Greeks, Italians, Jews and Turks between Tradition and Modernity. He has been a foreign correspondent in the Middle East and Latin America and is a member of the editorial board of Axess magazine.


Suzana Herculano-Houzel: The Human Advantage of Having Sixteen Billion Cortical Neurons – and How That is Still Not Enough

Associate Professor of Psychology, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee

Suzana Herculano-Houzel is Associate Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. She was previously a faculty member at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. She won the José Reis Award for Science Communication in 2003 and was the first Brazilian speaker on TED Global, in 2013. Her publications include The Human Advantage: A New Understanding of How Our Brain Became Remarkable.

Mariano Sigman: Language: A Privileged Window into the Mind

Director of Neuroscience Laboratory, Di Tella University, Buenos Aires

Mariano Sigman is director of the Neuroscience Laboratory at the Torcuato Di Tella University in Buenos Aires. A former fellow of the Human Frontier Science Program and a scholar of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, he is the only Latin American scientist to be a director of the Human Brain Project. His publications include The Secret Life of the Mind: How Our Brain Thinks, Feels and Decides.

Martin Ingvar: Digital Information: From Words to Semantics

Professor of Integrative Medicine, Osher Center, Karolinska Institute

Martin Ingvar is Professor of Integrative Medicine at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience and director of the MR Center at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm. He has written several popular science books about the brain, the most recent about how the machinery of thinking can be transferred to artificial intelligence. He has served in numerous leadership roles at Karolinska Institutet, including as dean of research and deputy vice-chancellor for future healthcare.

Knowing Your Enemy

Michael Goodman: Reading the Russian Mindset: Lessons from the Cold War

Professor of Intelligence and International Affairs, Department of War Studies, King’s College London

Michael Goodman is Professor of Intelligence and International Affairs in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, and Visiting Professor at the Norwegian Defence Intelligence School. He has written widely within the field of intelligence history, most recently volumes I and II of The Official History of the Joint Intelligence Committee, of which the first volume was chosen as one of the Spectator’s books of the year in 2015.

Gill Bennett: Disinformation in the Information Age

Historian, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Gill Bennett is a former chief historian of the British government’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office and senior editor of the UK’s official history of British foreign policy, Documents on British Policy Overseas. She is a senior associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Her latest book is The Zinoviev Letter: The Conspiracy that Never Dies.

Simon Mayall: The Other Side of the Hill

Retired British Army officer, former senior Middle East adviser for the UK Ministry of Defence

Simon Mayall is a retired British Army officer who most recently served as senior Middle East adviser for the UK’s Ministry of Defence and was the Prime Minister’s security envoy to Iraq after the fall of Mosul. He was knighted in 2014 and has also been honoured with the US Legion of Merit for services in Iraq. He is the author of Soldier in the Sand: A Personal History of the Modern Middle East.

Addicted To Information

Maria Borelius: Time to Regulate the Development of AI

Journalist, author and entrepreneur

Maria Borelius is a science journalist, author and entrepreneur. She holds a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University and has studied recombinant gene technology and bioethics at the University of Oxford. She works as an adviser to global pharmaceuticals, tech companies and larger science institutions, and as a columnist for the Nordic daily financial paper, Dagens industri.

Andrew Keen: How to Fix the Future

Entrepreneur and author

Andrew Keen is a British-American entrepreneur and author, who earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. He is executive director of the Silicon Valley innovation salon FutureCast and is host of the TechCrunch chat show ‘Keen On’. His publications include The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube and the rest of today’s user-generated media are killing our culture and economy and How to Fix the Future: Staying Human in the Digital Age.

Nicholas Carr: The Ugly Global Village: Human Nature and Social Media

Journalist and author

Nicholas Carr is a writer on technology and culture who received the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity from the Media Ecology Association in 2015. A former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, he is the author of several books, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Information Roads

Peter Frankopan: When Information Travels – The Global Impact of Knowledge Exchange

Professor of Global History, University of Oxford

Peter Frankopan is Professor of Global History at the University of Oxford, where he is Stavros Niarchos Foundation Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and a senior research fellow at Worcester College. He works with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization on the future of sustainable cities and on the Belt and Road Initiative. Frankopan’s books include The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World and The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.

M. Antoni J. Ucerler, S.J.: The Society of Jesus and its Eraly Modern Global Networks of Knowledge

Director and Associate Professor of East Asian Studies, Ricci Institute, University of San Francisco

M. Antoni J. Ucerler, S.J. is a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest, Associate Professor of East Asian Studies and director of the Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History at the University of San Francisco. He has published numerous studies on Christian history in Japan, including Christianity and Cultures: Japan and China in Comparison, 1543–1644 and The Samurai and the Cross: Reinventing Christianity in Early Modern Japan.

Christopher Coker: Information Highways and Information Start ups

Director of LSE IDEAS

Christopher Coker is director of LSE IDEAS, a foreign policy think tank at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is a former member of the Council of the Royal United Services Institute, for whom he wrote the monograph Empires in Conflict: The Growing Rift Between Europe and the United States. He is also a former editor of the Atlantic Quarterly and the European Security Analyst.

State of the University

Janne Haaland Matláry: When Two and Two make Five – The Vocation of the University in the Age of Subjectivism

Professor of Political Science, University of Oslo

Janne Haaland Matláry is Professor of Political Science at the University of Oslo and the Norwegian Command and Staff College. Her more than twenty books include Military Strategy in the Twenty-First Century: The Challenge for NATO (co-edited with Robert Johnson) and she is a columnist for Dagens Næringsliv. She represented the Norwegian Christian Democratic Party as Deputy Foreign Minister from 1997 to 2000. In 2001, she was appointed Dame of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and, in 2020, Dame of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary.

Elisabeth Kendall: Jihadist Media Strategies

Senior Research Fellow, Arabic and Islamic Studies, Pembroke College, University of Oxford

Elisabeth Kendall is senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford. She previously served as director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World. Since 2012, she has acted as international adviser to a cross-tribal council in eastern Yemen that promotes grassroots activities to counter al-Qaeda and Islamic State. She is author and co-editor of Twenty-First Century Jihad: Law, Society and Military Action and Reclaiming Islamic Tradition: Modern Interpretations of the Classical Heritage.

Claire Lehmann: Academic Cultures and Explanatory Conflict

Editor-in-Chief, Quillette

Claire Lehmann is a writer and editor-in-chief of the online magazine Quillette, which she founded in 2015. Prior to launching the magazine, she worked in government and the not-for-profit sector in the areas of health policy and immunisation research and communication. Her writing has appeared in Tablet, Commentary, the Sydney Morning Herald and Scientific American.

David Goodhart: The Overmighty Cognitive Elite and The Three Hs

Journalist, author and Head of the Demography unit at the Policy Exchange

David Goodhart is a journalist and author and is head of the demography unit at the Policy Exchange think tank. He is the founder and former editor of Prospect magazine and the former director of the centre-left think tank Demos. His book The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration was runner-up for the Orwell Prize in 2014. His other publications include The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics and Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century.

Brendan O’Neill: The Crisis of Enlightened Thought

Editor and Columnist, Spiked Magazine

Brendan O’Neill is editor of the online magazine, Spiked, and a regular writer for the Sun and the Spectator. A collection of his essays, A Duty to Offend, was published in 2015, and was followed by Anti-Woke in 2018.

The State of the Debate

Fraser Nelson: Going Underground: The Intellectual Dark Web

Editor, The Spectator

Fraser Nelson is a leading British journalist and commentator. He is the editor of the Spectator, a weekly columnist for the Daily Telegraph in London and a regular broadcaster. He is also a director of the think tank Centre for Policy Studies and for the charity Social Mobility Foundation. In 2013, he won the British Press Award for Political Journalist of the Year.

Iain Martin: Market Complexity and Making the Moral Case for Capitalism

Columnist, The Times

Iain Martin is a British political commentator and author. He writes a weekly column for The Times and is editor and publisher of Reaction, a website dedicated to the analysis of politics, economics and culture. He is the author of Making It Happen: Fred Goodwin, RBS and the Men Who Blew Up the British Economy, and in 2020 he contributed to launching the website Engelsberg Ideas with Mattias Hessérus.

Adrian Wooldrige: The People Versus the Knowledge Elite

Political Editor, The Economist