Confronting Scientific Controversies: Do Facts Matter?

Keith Kloor and Dan Hicks launch the Winter 2017 "Issues in Science and Technology" in this CSPO Conversations event

Watch the full video of the January 27, 2017 CSPO Conversations event here.

With the news media busy figuring out which of the new administration’s falsehoods to call “lies” and which merely constitute “untruths,” the recent CSPO Conversations event on confronting scientific controversies was timed perfectly. Building off their feature essays in the Winter 2017 Issues in Science and Technology, science reporter Keith Kloor and philosopher of science and AAAS Fellow Daniel J. Hicks spoke before a standing-room-only crowd at Arizona State University’s Washington Center.

Kloor, who described the perils of reporting on science distortion and misinformation in “Journalism under Attack,” noted that political news was encountering a problem that had plagued science journalists for a long time. Namely, unsupported or distorted claims make substantive discussion of deeply divisive topics challenging. In science journalism, these issues include climate change, genetically modified organisms, and vaccines. Finding a middle ground to address the nuances of a controversy can be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible.

Part of the problem, according to Hicks, is the one he identified in “Scientific Controversies as Proxy Politics.” Disputes over scientific findings frequently conceal deeper disagreements about fundamental issues, such as the structure of an equitable economic system or the level of risk to which one is willing to expose one’s child. The conventional model of policymaking requires the science to be settled before a policy is implemented. Moving beyond scientific controversies to address the underlying issues may therefore require greater comfort with acting on imperfect knowledge.

The in-depth conversation among Kloor, Hicks, and the audience touched on everything from the limits of science—and how to convey uncertainty while being clear about what scientists are confident of—to how to discuss epidemiological research with a parent who believes his or her child’s autism is the result of a vaccination. Watch the full, fascinating, and ultimately hopeful conversation here.