The ‘Querdenker’: A Bulwark Against Extremism

Jul 5, 2015

by Jalees Rehman

The annual Nobel Laureate Meeting in the German city of Lindau located at the beautiful Lake Constance is an inspiration hub. Each year, Nobel laureates in the sciences meet up with bright young scientists who are about to embark on their research careers to discuss a broad array of scientific topics and the nature of scientific discovery. These young researchers learn about the Higgs boson, the role of RNA molecules in the evolution of cells, the development of environment-friendly chemical synthesis and many other scientific topics. But what is most inspiring for them is that they get to meet Querdenker.

The German word Querdenker consists of “quer” (which can be translated as “cross”, “transverse”, “oblique” or “diagonal”, some sources suggest that the English word “queer” is derived from it) and Denker (thinker). Querdenker could thus be translated as diagonal thinkers or intellectual mavericks, basically thinkers who travel off the beaten path. The scientific discoveries presented by the Nobel laureates hail from very different fields, which is why certain technical aspects can be difficult to grasp. But one common theme emerges in the Lindau lectures and the discussions. Many, if not most, of the Nobel laureates are Querdenker. They received the Nobel Prize because they challenged existing scientific concepts or revolutionized science by introducing innovative technologies which allowed scientists to pursue questions that had previously resided beyond their reach. The impact of their work had a broad impact, often transcending the boundaries of conventional scholarly disciplines.

After leaving the Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting, one feels the inexorable desire to challenge some existing scientific dogma or concept. This is easier said than done because we are so often entrenched in conventional scientific views and paradigms. AndQuerdenker or not, pursuing high-risk, unconventional paths will often lead to failure. Such is the nature of science. But the joy of rebelling against existing scientific concepts, the hope that there is a remote chance of revolutionizing one’s field and the narratives of the Nobel laureates can sustain and motivate scientists despite the poor odds. Science is at its best when it challenges authority. Science is at its worst when it submits to authority. This is true for authority within science such as pre-eminent scientific ideas but also for authority outside of science. One of the darkest chapters in the history of German science took place when scientists submitted to the Nazi ideology of the Third Reich.

At the 65th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, a non-scientist Querdenker gave a provocative talk with the title “When Survival is Learning Enough”: Wole Soyinka, who received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature. Soyinka is a literary Querdenker, whose plays and novels weave a multicultural quilt of ideas, integrating Yoruba and European culture and styles of narration, defying traditional literary categories. The thrust of his talk was the devastating attack on education perpetrated by Islamist extremists, especially by the group known as Boko Haram in his homeland Nigeria.


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8 comments on “The ‘Querdenker’: A Bulwark Against Extremism

  • 1
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    Science is at its worst when it submits to authority. This is true for authority within science such as pre-eminent scientific ideas but also for authority outside of science. One of the darkest chapters in the history of German science took place when scientists submitted to the Nazi ideology of the Third Reich.

    Is it just me but isn’t the darkest chapter of the history of science (not just “German science” – what a silly term BTW) when it had to submit to the authority of the Catholic Church? Seems like a huge omission not to mention it…



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  • I am also concerned when he thinks that “Education” is a bulwark against radicalisation – aren’t a lot of the young people joining ISIS – products of western education systems – with A Levels and degrees? I think that most governments are not seeing the woods for the trees. organised religion is the source of these problems and if you could wean the masses off their particular flavour of opium then humankind may be finally rid of one source of murderous ideas!



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  • Understanding how the universe works – science – is the key to ending superstition. So I think education is a critical factor. Higher education requires freedom of thought and debate, which are also essential tools for deconstructing religion. Ironically, well educated people often become religious leaders, but I suspect that’s simply because they find a maleable and willing audience among the ignorant.

    I am sure there are other important factors, such as social policies that don’t marginalise groups of people, and make them turn to religion to give themselves a sense of purpose and belonging.



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  • Thanks for the comment! I used the expression “German science” in the article to highlight the historical dimension of science. As a German scientist, I am especially appalled by the fact that scientists actively promoted Nazi agenda, made up “scientific theories” to prove the validity of bizarre Nazi racial hygiene concepts, performed experiments on prisoners in concentration camps, etc. This active participation of scientists is what makes this an especially dark chapter in the history of science. Scientists in most other countries did not subscribe to these ideologies, hence “German science”.



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  • Jalees
    Jul 7, 2015 at 10:59 am

    As a German scientist, I am especially appalled by the fact that scientists actively promoted Nazi agenda, made up “scientific theories” to prove the validity of bizarre Nazi racial hygiene concepts, performed experiments on prisoners in concentration camps, etc. This active participation of scientists is what makes this an especially dark chapter in the history of science. Scientists in most other countries did not subscribe to these ideologies, hence “German science”.

    I think it is the pseudo-science of autocratic political ideologies, rather than being specifically German.

    After all, Stalinists also had their own “theories” of biology, social engineering and economics! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lysenkoism

    Various religious ideologies also promote their own versions of pseudo-science.



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  • Today marks the tenth anniversary of bombing atrocities perpetrated in London in the name of religion; in none of the media coverage have I heard anyone state that fact.

    To discover the source of a river it’s imperative to go all the way to the spring whence it rises.

    If ever there was a time for disambiguous language this is it.



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  • Stafford Gordon
    Jul 7, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    Today marks the tenth anniversary of bombing atrocities perpetrated in London in the name of religion; in none of the media coverage have I heard anyone state that fact.

    There have been hundreds of similar atrocities all over the world, about which we do not hear a squeak on their anniversaries, but hey – this was London, so this one must be special and require a big song and dance with aggrandised religious dressing up, preaching, etc.!!!!!!

    Sometimes the odd more remote big one gets a mention!

    http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/srebrenica-massacre-anniversary-1995-genocide-carried-out-by-serb-forces-during-bosnian-war-1456177
    From 11 to 13 July 1995, the Bosnian Serb army shot more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in and around the town of Srebrenica.



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  • I wasn’t pitching for London Alan, but on the day, our fourteen year old daughters ‘phoned their mum in London to make sure she was alright, which, as you can imagine, is still a vivid memory.

    It rather goes without saying that all the other atrocities have been no less vile.

    Oh, and by the way, I should have said unambiguous, not disambiguous.



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