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2004-2005 Brown Bag Discussion of "Science's Audiences"
April 22, 2005

Karen Greif (Biology)

Science and Civic Policy

Powerpoint Presentation

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum


Karen's presentation highlighted the fact that science information is always equivocal; there can be two completely different interpretations for the same (incomplete) data. But since federal agencies are supposed to create policy based on mandates, there is constant tension between political needs and the lack of scientific conclusions. Science is always uncertain, but without clear cut answers, the advice of scientists is of limited value to politicians. Since "politicians have always worked in gray," there was some discussion about where this "political need for certainty" originated. And wherefrom this perception of science as a "provider of certainty"? Perhaps it arises from scientists themselves, who want politicians to pay more attention, and want their work to be treated as definitive. Irritated that they are not playing a larger role in public policy, they insist on the truth-claims of their work.

The shift to skepticism, in the public perception of science, is a "good thing" and a useful one. The counter-insistence on certainty reflects the frustration of the scientific community at the "woeful ignorance" of science in the culture at large, and at its selective use. A discussion of "what can be done" about the poor levels of science advising, then, involves not only improvements in governmental structures, but an acknowlegement that many of the underlying questions faced by politicians are not scientific ones. The scientific community also needs to face its own arrogance about what it is doing, and--rather than "looking down at the popularizers as not being real scientists"--make an effort to communicate science to those not doing research. "We need to get involved in explaining"--and one thing we need to explain to the public is "what uncertainty means." There is a tremendous fear when lines of questioning challenge established ethical values, but throwing out science entirely is not the answer to this profound sense of threat.

Further discussion of such questions is invited to continue in the on-line forum.

On April 29, Amy Bug (Swarthmore Physics Department), Al Albano (Bryn Mawr Physics Department), and Anne Dalke (Bryn Mawr Feminist and Gender Studies Program) will offer the last "case study" in this year's Brown Bag series: "What's New in Gender and Science?"

On January 14, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, @ a conference on the problems of diversifying the science & engineering work force, Larry Summers offered his "best guess, to provoke you...is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination."

Despite all the advances of feminism, we still confront the glaring fact that, in certain fields of science and engineering, women are grossly underrepresented. Why is that? (Are there differences among brains? In the dynamics of co-ed and all-female classrooms?) What are we doing about them? (How important are women's colleges in this initiative?) What more can we do about it? (What changes might be made in institutional structures more generally?)

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