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Scientists Seek New Ways to Connect With Public

By Dave Jones on February 28, 2017 in University

Four UC Davis scientists pondering “Science In a Post-Truth Era” said at a campus roundtable last week that they and their colleagues must devise new ways to connect with the public as a way to promote and protect the scientific process.

“It’s beyond just getting people excited about generic science,” said Veronica Morales, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. “It’s really about engaging individuals to really understand the value of science, to see how science actually affects them in every aspect of their lives.”

She made her comments during the Feb. 22 roundtable, where she sat with Joe Dumit, Tessa Hill and Benjamin Houlton. It was the first program in the university’s Dialogue and Discernment series sponsored by the Office of the Chancellor. Deb Niemeier, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the School of Education, moderated the roundtable in the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.

The program drew an audience of 50 and reached others via social media, with live tweets using the hashtag #ScienceTruth.

Ken Burtis, interim provost and executive vice chancellor, on Twitter: @Tessa_M_Hill says it’s an “all-hands-on-deck moment” for scientists. #ScienceTruth

"Science In a Post-Truth Era" panelists.
Panelists, from left: Benjamin Houlton, Tessa Hill, Joe Dumit and Veronica Morales. (Gregory Urquiaga/UCDavis)

‘Post-truth era’ predates fall 2016

Hill, an associate professor who studies the effects of ocean acidification, said the “post-truth era” predates the politics of the fall of 2016: “We actually have been living for a long time in a big swirl of misinformation and an organized effort to actually use misinformation against climate scientists.”

But, she said, “I think we will look back at this moment we are in today as a pivot point in how science interacts with society. … I hear many of my colleagues talking about how they are redefining what it means to be a scientist in this world. They are also redefining themselves as scientists and as humans, as people, because scientists are not only scientists.”

Hill noted how the hashtag #actuallivingscientist took hold recently after someone commented on Twitter that a majority of Americans believed they had never met a scientist.

“We are, believe it or not, at the grocery store, on airplanes, at drop-off at the elementary school in the morning,” she said. “I mean, we are everyone, right? … We interact with people in our daily lives all the time, and we miss opportunities to make that connection. So, I would encourage people to make that connection.”

Scientific process ‘protects ourselves from ourselves’

Houlton, director of the John Muir Institute of the Environment, suggested that society has “an attachment problem,” where people attach to a single idea and become fixed on it. He said the scientific process offers an antidote to that problem, and can help create a healthier society.

“I think there are many benefits to holding multiple ideas in one’s mind, and seeking out information that disproves one or multiple of those ideas,” he said. “The scientific process to me is like a limit function in calculus: You can approach the truth but you can never quite get there.

“So, I think we need to be a little careful about thinking that scientists have the drop on truth. What we do have the drop on is a process that protects ourselves from ourselves. Ultimately, when that’s recognized in society, I think we can make significant advances.”

Best available evidence, open information

Dumit, a professor of anthropology, said: “We’re in a really historical moment where we need to emphasize the integrity of what science offers, which is best available evidence, open information.” 

“Decision-making processes and the evidence which informs them should be transparent, so that we can fully participate as citizens,” Dumit said, who earlier noted that, “in terms of contemporary politics, (science) is one of the checks and balances.”

Shannon Albers on Twitter: What can we do? Prof. Dumit: “Teach people how to use data.” Let’s start a #SlowData movement! #ScienceTruth

Dumit suggested that elementary schools have a special day on the subject of, “What Has Evidence Done for Me Lately?” Student and pupils (and their parents) could think about using the scientific method to solve problems. No Googling, no taking a vote. The answer might be, “Get some evidence.”

Such an exercise might help people realize that science “is not just experts in some room coming back with an answer,” he said. “It’s an open process that other people can participate in.”

Morales said she favors presenting the full scientific thought process — from the question to the solution — so the public can see that scientific exploration is not typically a straight path but often “a pretty tortuous journey.”

Importantly, she said, scientists must emphasize how slow the process can be: “There is no one concrete solution or not one concrete answer that we can provide that will be applicable in every single situation.”

Kat Kerlin on Twitter: “I don’t see scientists as working against something but as standing up for the principles of our democracy.” @Tessa_M_Hill #ScienceTruth

Scientists as activists?

An audience member asked, “Is it time for scientists to come out of their labs and become activists?”

In response, Houlton said that while he is planning to participate in the March for Science on April 22, he does not view it as political activism, necessarily.

“It’s more because I feel that science is something that our kids need, the planet needs,” he said. “We know that one in eight people worldwide die from air pollution, from all the toxins that our industrial processes are putting into the air.

“So, when you start dismantling science, the reason that I object to it, is because it’s about our survival. The data themselves are a part of that picture, but it’s really about the end point. That’s what gets me motivated as a scientist to want to speak out.”

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About the author(s)

Dave Jones Dave Jones is the editor of Dateline UC Davis. He can be reached at 530-752-6556 or [email protected]

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