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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Panelists at “Science In a Post-Truth Era” debate restrictions on scientific freedom, accessibility within political administrations


Four UC Davis science faculty panelists, Interim Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter attend first event of the “Dialogue and Discernment” series

UC Davis’ “Dialogue and Discernment” series of academic discussions rolled out its first event on Feb. 22, “Science In a Post-Truth Era,” featuring four science faculty panelists, a moderator and Interim Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter.

The four faculty members provided opening statements affirming the dual importance of diversity in dialogue and discernment. The speakers described a perpetuated separation between science and society, and how scientists and the public must work together to shatter this wall and suture the two.

Hexter gave an introduction at the start of the round-table, orating his reverence for academia and upholding the value of scholarly process.

“Those that are part of the academic community have a special opportunity as well as a special responsibility to do better,” Hexter said. “This exploration of what is at stake and the idea of dialogue speaks to my expectation that its appearance in our survey title won’t puzzle anyone. But why did I also add ‘discernment?’ In my opinion, we must be skilled in employing discernment, which I define as a honed critical faculty encompassing knowledge, reason and more.”

The moderator, Deb Niemeier, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the School of Education, spoke to the audience after Hexter, explaining the issues and goals that would be addressed in the talk.

“Generally speaking, the aim of scientists and the public would appear to be compatible,” Niemeier said. “And yet, scientists are facing marginalization and suppression from public and political leadership, so what is going on? That’s the purpose of this roundtable today.”  

The speakers focused on the importance of scientific expertise and discipline, highlighting that while bolstering diversity of hypothesis and scientific freedom is important, scientific standards must also be upheld in the process.

Benjamin Houlton, a Chancellor’s Fellow professor in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources and the director of the UC Davis John Muir Institute of the Environment, jokingly described climate change as one “of the issues that wakes me up in a cold sweat at night.” Houlton explained how he saw truth as a constant search with a multitude of hypothesis, and how absolutism within political and social contexts can damage science.

“Scientific process to me is like a limit function in calculus — you can approach the truth but never quite get there,” Houlton said. “Scientists don’t have the drop on truth — what we do have the drop on is a process that protects ourselves from ourselves. If you take the case study of climate change, over decades of intense research there’s been several hypotheses for why we see the warmth of the planet increasing. We now have a working model of the climate system which says humans are disproportionately responsible for changes in climate.”

Houlton and the other speakers referenced political administrations in misrepresenting the scientific and expert community with the public, corporate and political manipulation of science. The speakers posited that political influence on science has challenged free academic discourse.

Since his inauguration, President Donald Trump has defunded the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), rolling back the clean water acts and revising former President Obama’s 2015 climate change regulation, which targeted coal-fired power plants. Trump’s administration has also removed online climate and environmental public data.

“Someone with fossil fuel connections is now part of the EPA,” Houlton said. “It’s an assault to society when we elect these officials.”

The panelists discussed how non-environmentally friendly institutions impede scientific progress.

Houlton cited that “one-eighth of people around the world die of air pollution” and that industry catalyzes this damage through a system in which “the less climate scientists do, the more institutions make.”

Tessa Hill, an associate professor of in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, ocean acidification expert and recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers views public opinion and scientific opinion as often unnecessarily at odds.

“The post-truth era is long lived for a climate scientist,” Hill said. “We have for a long time lived in a swirl of misinformation. An attempt to use misinformation was and is used against a growing body of scientific evidence and consensus in terms of where the scientific method brought us to where we are today.”

Veronica Morales, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, described scientific discovery as a “torturous journey to the truth,” and said that the full scientific process is often arduous.

Joe Dumit, a professor of anthropology and the director for the Institute of Social Sciences, illuminated his ideology on discerning between between corporate and public beliefs. He told the audience that he begins his class each day with the question: “What’s the difference between facts and public relations?”

In addition, Houlton described social media’s role in changing people’s views of climate change.

“Social media and internet has provided a voice to everybody, and suddenly everyone’s opinion kind of carries the same way,” Houlton said. “A single tweet from the POTUS about climate now carries as much weight as a couple decades of papers because of who it comes from. I think we haven’t developed a reasonable way to use this new appendage of social media and the internet.”

Jared Kohn, a third-year English major, similarly believes that the rise of internet and media misinformation has created a diminished expert opinion, sullying the respect for academic and expert findings.

“I don’t think the concept of a post-truth society begins and ends with Trump, I think it’s a situation that’s been developing and growing,” Kohn said. “I almost feel like it began with the inception of the internet because the expert opinion becomes diminished amongst information now being everywhere. An inability to trust the concept of expertise was facilitated by a rise of information.”

Attendees then had the chance to ask the panelists questions. One community member asked if it was time for scientists to hang up their lab coats and become activists, while others asked how science could become more publicly accessible, using examples like NASA artistic renderings or YouTube videos.

The next event in the Dialogue and Discernment series, titled “Milo War: Campus Activism and Freedom of Speech in the Age of Outrage,” was led by professor Robert Ostertag from the Department of Cinema and Digital Media on March 9.


Written by: Aaron Liss — campus@theaggie.org


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