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Day of Action sparks discussion about science's role in society

Members of the University science community gathered on the Day of Action to discuss the importance of science and its historical and current role in the political climate.

Many of the day's events were oriented around discussion and audience participation. History of Science Professor D. Graham Burnett ’93, moderated an audience discussion covering topics ranging from the lack of education in mathematical logic to the popular distrust of scientists as an intellectual class. Later, Professor Joshua Shaevitz of the Lewis-Sigler Institute encouraged audience members to name reasons why people study science and ways that technologies from science that have changed human lives.

At the “History of Science and Political Engagement” teach-in, discussion ranged from strictly scientific topics to facts in general, including the relevance of “fact” in the current political climate.

“The term ‘alternative fact’ is a misnomer for what we’re talking about today,” History of Science Professor Keith Wailoo said. “We are really talking about trying to undermine certainty in traditional facts, but questioning their credibility, for example, by undermining confidence in the facts of climate change. But in some places, say the legal setting, old-fashioned facts still matter.”

Wailoo, a professor in the Department of History and the Wilson School, explained that even in a political climate where facts are not always the foundation for debate, they still matter.

“Legal evidence and facts are what matter in courts, no matter how much you try to change the ‘facts’ with Twitter posts,” he said. "People still believe that the facts are out there — like the facts in Trump’s tax returns. We are concerned about manipulating the facts.”

History of Science Professor Angela Creager discussed the role and persona expected of modern scientists.

“We live in society that values participation and distrusts elites,” Creager explained. “Scientists both want authority and respect, and to find a way to open it up. It’s really hard for science to achieve both at the same time. There’s a lot more distrust in the U.S. of elites. I think finding a way to encourage participation and, at the same time, reinforce values of consensual knowledge is important.”

“This moment is a challenging one for scientists because scientific authority seems under attack,” Wailoo concurred. “But the question of science’s authority has always been something that needs to be established and re-established. Rather than assume that people will believe in authority of scientific facts because they are “scientific,” this moment puts an extra onus on scientists — and journalists and all of us — to explain more and more clearly why their facts and ideas are more authoritative than mere beliefs.”

Onus or not, the speakers argued that no matter the political implications of science, it still holds significance.

“The goal of science is to examine our current theories and design tests to falsify them,” Shaevitz said at the “Why Science?” teach-in. “Science satisfies a basic human curiosity about the universe and our place in it.”

Science teach-ins at the Day of Action included events such as: “Why Science: Facts, Evidence, and the Search of Truth,” “Between Trumpism and Elitism: the Scientist’s Plight under Capitalism,” “Teaching STEM College Courses in New Jersey Prisons,” “Closing the Gap: Gender and Prestige in Science & Medicine,” “Shrinking Ice Sheets, Rising Seas: Today and in the Last Interglacial,” “The History of Science and Political Engagement: An Open Discussion,” “Science in the Public Sphere: How Can We Increase Non-Expert Engagement with the Knowledge and Values of Science?” and “Revenue-neutral Carbon Tax: The Most Feasible and Effective Policy at Combatting Climate Change.”

The Day of Action also incorporated a history of science knowledge fair, and several organizations set up tables in Frist Campus Center to advance their respective causes, including Citizens Climate Lobby, Princeton Graduate Women in Science and Engineering, Princeton Student Climate Lobby, and Princeton University Energy Association.