The Greek philosopher Plato wrote dialogues to teach his principles to readers. However, he believed that oral communication is more powerful than written language. As he feared people would not understand the most intimate principles of life if transmitted in a written form, he decided to teach them orally (and only orally) in the school he personally founded, the Academy. In this article, we will explain why Plato’s approach to scientific communication is more modern than ever, and how this can help us to find novel strategies to teach the broad public basic critical thinking skills.
Plato was an illustrious Greek philosopher who lived in Athens between 428 BC and 347 BC. His doctrine is considered to be of paramount importance to the foundations of Western culture.
Plato has authored numerous writings, including a multitude of dialogues in which the protagonist, generally the philosopher Socrates, interfaces himself with different characters to discuss philosophical topics. The purpose of the dialogues is to teach the student, who through reading – or, even better, listening – can come to learn valuable teachings.
Plato preferred to write in a dialogical form. In fact, he believed that oral communication is superior to written text (1). He believed that writing in the form of dialogues was useful for transmitting principles to people, with the aim of spreading the concepts of his doctrine in the most congenial way.
In many ways, Plato’s approach to teaching could be regarded as a precursor to modern didactic approaches, where textbooks are more and more replaced by instructional movies.
Limited by the technology of his time however, Plato used written text, the only available powerful dissemination tool, as if it was spoken language.
Indeed, it appears as if the philosopher himself was trying his hand in front of a real and tangible audience. The presence of the philosopher himself was, in Plato’s opinion, necessary to properly transmit the doctrine in full.
To consolidate his theory that speaking is superior to writing, Plato founded a school in 387 BC that he named “the Academy” (Ἀκαδημία) in honor of the Greek hero Academus, a name that still reverberates in the global scientific and cultural world we know today.
Plato never handed down to posterity what were his deepest beliefs, the supreme principles that the philosopher considered to be the founding truths of our reality.
In fact, since he believed that orality was the only tool to powerfully transmit teachings, Plato decided not to put his deepest beliefs into writing (1). He was afraid that his writings could be read by people unable to understand the truth; and even worse, that they could fall prey to the wrong interpretation.
Essentially, Plato’s preferred teaching methods stand in contrast to the modern approach to scientific communication and popularization, which is currently generally based on writing.
Plato’s vision still carries an incredible validity in modern times, where the globalizing impact of social media combined with the extreme ease of access of information online has allowed everyone to be able to voice their opinion on any topic, whether the matter is questionable or not, and whether this lies within their list of competencies or not.
To counter this worrying phenomenon of our social culture, scientists and policy makers are struggling to restore order. And the tool scientists believe could halt this decline is scientific popularization. Since any type of information is accessible online, scientific dissemination aims to educate people to understand the basics of scientific thought and critical thinking.
However, overwhelmed by the spread of misinformation and general ignorance, broad scientific communication (or let’s call it “open science”) is failing to educate a large fraction of the population who have not had any academic training.
Fortunately, the wisdom of the philosopher Plato shows us a possible solution to this intricate problem. As mentioned above, he suggests that oral communication is superior to written language. To date, written text, be it in the form of online articles, newspapers, or brochures, is practically the only form of communication used by scientists to educate the general public on sensitive subjects.
Think about the issue of vaccine denialism: you can read articles about this topic practically everywhere. However, it is extremely rare that someone, whether in a public event or on television, teaches us what vaccines are and how they work. To make matters worse, even in the rare case that a doctor or scientist is invited to a television broadcast, it is rarely for the purpose of educational dialogue or a teaching monologue (lecture). Indeed, the segments are mostly set up as scientific debates between educated people. This makes the audience uninterested or unable to receive the intended message. This issue is further exacerbated by the frequent media presentation of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories lacking in the necessary critical analysis of the underlying ground truth.
In this scenario it is therefore necessary, following Plato’s thought, to do two things at the same time. On the one hand, it is necessary to keep silent, as the philosopher is himself silent about the meaning of the “essence of the Good” in “the Republic”:
“Still, I must implore you, Socrates, said Glaucon, not to turn away just as you are reaching the goal; if you will only give such an explanation of the good as you have already given of justice and temperance and the other virtues, we shall be satisfied.
Yes, my friend, and I shall be at least equally satisfied, but I cannot help fearing that I shall fail, and that my indiscreet zeal will bring ridicule upon me. No, sweet sirs, let us not at present ask what is the actual nature of the good, for to reach what is now in my thoughts would be an effort too great for me. But of the child of the good who is likest him, I would fain speak, if I could be sure that you wished to hear – otherwise, not.” (2)
On the other hand, it is necessary to orally teach the doctrine, the scientific truth. And to do so, Plato founded an Academy. In present times, fortunately schools already exist, and this first step has already been accomplished. But although geography, mathematics, history and biology are all important disciplines, there is no discipline that is more relevant than “critical thinking“, which can be applied to any subject. How to find information, how to understand if it is true or false – within a surging wave of fake news on social media – how to distinguish facts and opinions, or whether opinions are based on facts or not, and so on: this is what it means to teach critical thinking at school.
Our schools must be the vanguard of this educational scientific revolution: they should completely review their own programs and methods, targeting students individually and not collectively, diversifying and not equalizing.
Plato is therefore suggesting we should keep silent – just as he omitted the meaning of the “essence of the Good” in “the Republic” – and teach, but this latter task should be performed only in appropriate places and personalized ways. The governments of the world should implement policies aimed at teaching critical thinking skills not only through schooling, but also through targeted – and numerous – scientific campaigns through television, the radio or the Internet, being fully aware of the age, social class and interests of the listeners. In order to ensure the efficiency of these communications, scientists must reflect upon, improve and reiterate their public teachings with the same scientific rigor they apply to their own research. Popularized scientific communication can appear in the form of documentaries, exclusive reports, news press releases, advertisements on sensitive topics, but also television series, in which scientific teachings can be hidden within seductive plots.
Plato teaches us that philosophy, as well as science, is not for everyone, but only for those who are able to understand it. Following in his footsteps, scientists and policy makers must commit themselves to divulging the principles necessary to understand scientific topics that have repercussions on everyone’s life: what is cancer, why are vaccines important, why should one not take antibiotics if it has not been prescribed by a doctor, climate change is an undeniable fact, and so on.
But at the same time, the ultimate scientific principles, the ultimate truth should still be reserved only for those who want to learn and become experts. And this expertise has to be built through oral teachings at universities, or as Plato coined it, an Academic institution.
It is therefore necessary to disclose the scientific truth to everybody, but through methods based on oral communication. We should separate academic knowledge – the ultimate principles, or the “essence of the Good” (2) – from what is instead disseminated and taught to everybody, the “child of the Good” (2).
- Reale, G., “Platone: tutti gli scritti”, 2014.
- Plato, “The Republic”, 375 BC