A moderated panel last Thursday brought Yale researchers and science writers together to discuss the future of science in the United States, but attracted just a few dozen community members.
Two science writers took turns interviewing three Yale professors whose research spanned fields ranging from psychology to medicine to astrophysics during the event, which was organized as part of the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism’s “Truth in the Internet Age” series. The panel — composed of Yale School of Medicine professor David Hafler, Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan and astrophysics professor Meg Urry — discussed the roles of truth, communication and politics in scientific discourse.
University Vice President for Communications and Poynter Fellowship Chair Eileen O’Connor said it was important for the series, which explores truth as it relates to media portrayal, to address the topic of science given public doubt about certain scientific findings.
“One of the reasons that science seemingly is under siege is that there’s a lot more information out there, a lot more conspiracy theories really, that is calling into question established science in a way that is also not based on science,” she added, citing current debates surrounding global warming and the safety of vaccines.
The panel discussion consisted of three 30-minute interviews conducted by Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry professor Carl Zimmer ’87 and Science Editor of Axios Alison Snyder, interspersed with a series of short videos produced by Karin Shedd ’16, a Woodbridge Fellow working in the University Office of Public Affairs and Communication.
Shedd said that talks and panels at Yale are a “dime a dozen,” but that the format of the event helped to distinguish it from others. She added that the multiple short interviews and videos kept the audience engaged and made [the event] “punchier.”
Though the Yale scientists who partook in the panel approached the topics of the discussion from diverse fields, their conclusions about the state of science were broadly similar. Hafler told the News he found it heartening that he and co-panelist Urry held similar opinions on the roles of truth and proof in science, even though they study within different fields.
Zimmer said he hoped people came away from the talk thinking about what they can do to deal with some of the pressing issues in science and questioning their own assumptions about science’s place in society.
“The fact is that scientists are incredibly well regarded in American society by both conservatives and liberals, and that’s a fact. It’s also a fact that some people will vote for people who say things that are just scientifically untrue,” he said. “We live in that paradox, and I think people need to really drill into that paradox rather than jumping to uninformed conclusions.”
In an interview with Snyder, Urry pointed out the popular conception of science as a set of beliefs one can choose to believe in.
“I think we have to reiterate that we don’t choose the answer, we don’t choose the set of beliefs,” she said. “We might have preferences, but in the end, nature decides.”
Although the event was free and advertised to the entire Yale community, attendance was sparse.
Multiple organizers compared the small audience of this event to that of the series’ previous panel discussion, which filled the Yale Law School auditorium the day following the most recent presidential election.
“Do I wish we could’ve had more undergraduates?” O’Connor said. “Yeah, but it’s the end of the semester, people are finishing up their final papers and are getting ready for exams, so we knew it was going to be tough to get folks out.”
O’Connor and Poynter Fellow Kyle Gibson ’78, who gave the introduction at the event, both cited proximity to the end of the semester and senior society tap night as possible explanations for the low turnout. However, O’Connor said that the organizers of the event felt the timing of the event was important, as it was just a couple of days before the global March for Science.
Chris Lim GRD ’20, a graduate student who attended the event, said he found the low turnout “a little bit surprising,” citing a lack of engagement within Yale’s scientific graduate community.
“You’d think that if there’s a talk specifically on the eve of the science march, scientists would be more engaged, but I think that there’s just a culture about science where you stay in the lab and it’s hard to get involved,” he said.
Zimmer said that the proximity to the global March for Science sharpened the focus of the event and demonstrated the importance of this topic.
The Poynter Fellowship in Journalism was established in 1967 by Nelson Poynter GRD ’27.
Correction, April 26: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Carl Zimmer ’87 as a professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. In fact, he is a professor of Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry.