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Francis Bacon: the 17th-century philosopher whose scientific ideas could tackle climate change today

If we don’t make a fundamental change to the way we are living, the world faces the destruction of entire eco-systems, flooding of coastal areas, and ever more extreme weather. Such was the stark warning in a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The task is enormous.

One way to approach it is to look back to a time when scientific thinking did manage to initiate revolutionary changes in our outlook. In the 17th century, the philosopher Francis Bacon called for a “great fresh start” in our thinking about the natural world, and helped usher in the scientific revolution that replaced the staid thinking of the time. We could do worse than follow his example once again – this time in our social and political thinking – if we are to tackle the biggest challenge of our era.

In his key work Novum Organum, Bacon identified “four idols” of the mind – false notions, or “empty ideas” – that don’t just “occupy men’s minds so that truth can hardly get in, but also when a truth is allowed in they will push back against it”. A true science, he said, should “solemnly and firmly resolve to deny and reject them all, cleansing our intellect by freeing it from them”.

Bacon’s idols – listed below – are no longer part of standard scientific thinking, but they are still in place within our moral and political thought, and provide a useful model for understanding the challenges we face and how we might respond to them.

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