By convention, habitually or by general agreement, we do and say things without thinking. By convention, we act in certain ways and take things for granted. Scientists do that, too, basing the whole body of knowledge of a discipline on what is generally accepted, what the agreed-upon paradigms and ways of thinking are and what is ‘in’, to focus on for the time being. But nothing is neutral or above debate.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of listening to a retired professor in physics, Dr Aslam Chohan, a Pakistani who worked in Sweden for many years. He had a gathering at his house in Islamabad including young students, mostly in management and social sciences. Since he was from physics, with focus on basic science issues, it became a talk and discussion quite outside what we deal with. However, we also learnt that in physics, too, there are many things that are based on convention, agreed-upon ways of understanding and describing the world. For example, the way we all understand time, yes, Greenwich Meantime (GMT), and what follows from that. Or for that matter, the way the world has been given an order with North and South poles, the equator, and so on. I am sure it could have been done differently, but by convention we don’t question it, not even social scientists, who question most things. Social scientists create new knowledge all the time. For a physicist, it is more difficult, said Dr Chohan, and he referred with critical humour to a scholar in Pakistan who claimed to have written twenty scientific papers in a single year. “It is not possible to find new knowledge in physics just like that. If he had written one paper in three years, with new findings, with new theories and experiments, I would have been very impressed”, he said.

A Pakistani member of the group, who had grown up in East Africa, gave an interesting example about how we understand time, based on language. He explained that in the Kiswahili language, the hours of the day follows daylight; one o’clock is at seven o’clock in the morning, and daybreak at Equator is throughout the year about six or six thirty in the morning. “Isn’t it logical that the first hour of the day comes just after daybreak, not at midnight, as we by convention have learnt is beyond questioning?” asked the student.

This week in Pakistan, we live in the midst of important political events. Much of what goes on in politics and law, what we consider democratic rules, is based on traditions and agreed-upon conventions.

On Monday, a politician who made a critical remark about the immediate former prime minister of Pakistan said that he expected politicians to be honest and trustworthy. Yes, I thought, that is good and well, and true enough. But even those deeds are within the agreed-upon rules of the game. One would trust the leaders as part of the political culture, time and place where they are. They are not above and outside time and conventions; not even the Pope and religious leaders, or members of the older European democracies can claim such status.

In Sweden, there was a government crisis last week over secret defence information having been accessible to private companies after work had been outsourced to such companies. The government was criticised for not having put safety measures in place sooner and discussed the matter thoroughly within the cabinet and with the opposition. The Swedish prime minister said he had not known about the matter until some six-seven months ago, but he wished he had. The ministers who resigned, or said they did so rather than being sacked, did so honourably. The opposition didn’t quite give in to the solid prime minister’s explanation, but at the same time, the opposition did not want the government to resign, forcing a quite split opposition to try to form a minority government. It was all done within the established polite Swedish rules, where there are limits as for what to say and not to say. And today, there are also ‘common agreements’ among the old parties not to work with the ultra-conservative ‘Swedish Democrats’ (SD) although they have some twenty percent of the seats in parliament.

In USA, after the new administration came to power in January this year, there has been a constant political crisis caused by a president who does not want to follow existing rules for political debate and decision-making. It seems that Donald Trump wants government to work more in accordance with private sector rules than government rules, and in the private sector, it is the owner or the company president who decides. But this is against conventional practice in democratic politics. Traditional politics is seemingly more democratic than the dictatorial style of the president. Part of what we all learn with the populist American president in power, is that some conventions may be outdated; new and crude forms of decision-making may not be as undemocratic as it may seem. And we should recall that there is a lot of horse-trading in politics, in USA, Sweden and Pakistan. By convention, all operate within the cultures they belong to. Essential, too, is that actors are seen to play within the rules of the game at the time and place in question.

It is good to live and work by conventions, keep habit and follow general agreement, but only to a certain extent. But we don’t want the status-quo; politics is change within and existing rules. The physicist gave some examples, which were useful to natural and social scientists; the Swahili language thinking gave new insight; the recent political events in Pakistan have given us reason to think about what is right and acceptable within our political and economic cultures. In Sweden and USA, there are indeed also lessons to be drawn.

Have we become too conventional, even stale and sedate so that we have difficulties thinking new and outside the box? Yes, I believe we have, and it is especially those who belong to the establishment who benefit from playing by the ‘good old rules’. Those who are on the outskirts can benefit from change, from populism, small or big revolutions and other forms of deliberate and systematic change. Change requires that we have an open mind. Political parties must always try to understand the mood of the people today and tomorrow.

In Pakistan, I believe the political parties have a long way to go in order to be the change and development agents they are there to be. In Europe, too, I believe that the old socialist and social democratic parties have to include more radical change ideas, so that they can include the new underclass, to a large extent made up of refugees and other immigrants. It seems the parties on the left have administered well in Europe; now, they need to go beyond the ‘safe and easy’.

Conventional wisdom may no longer be enough – not in politics, not in science, not in everyday life. In our time, with all the knowledge and skills we have, we must become better at seeing what is important and in sharing with the needy what is their right, too; it is our duty to make the world more just and equal. Often, we must challenge conventional thinking and practice; we cannot just keep doing things without thinking because it worked well, at least for some, in the past.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.

atlehetland@yahoo.com