AAAS Conference and Spring updates

Naama, Nate, and Nic at an evening AAAS event

Naama, Nate, and Nic at an evening AAAS event

It’s hard to believe we’re already into March, but PoPUS has had an eventful spring semester so far! Most notably, seven student research assistants, Matthew, Jason, and I attended the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Washington, DC last month. In addition to taking in many relevant talks at the conference, two PoPUS student groups presented posters in the student poster competition.

Victor presents in the Science and Society category

Victor presents in the Science and Society poster session

The first poster was entitled “The Use and Abuse of ‘Understanding’ in Public Understanding of Science.” The student researchers analyzed papers published in the journal Public Understanding of Science from 2010–2015. They used digital text analysis to identify and examine definitions of epistemic success terms, and systematically read and reviewed all papers claiming to measure epistemic states in that time period. The results, generally indicating a lack of differentiation between epistemic states — particularly between knowledge and understanding — and a dearth of instruments attempting to measure understanding. We will be writing up a paper discussing these results this spring. Victor LoPiccolo represented the group, presenting the poster in the Science and Society session.

Jo, Julia, and Melissa at the Social Science poster session

Jo, Julia, and Melissa at the Social Science poster session

The second student poster, “Can You Succeed at Science Without Knowing You’re Trying? The Effect of Priming Intellectual Virtues on Individual Effort and Understanding,” presented our researchers’ attempts to utilize the psychological methodology of priming to increase effort applied to learning a scientific subject. Participants were primed with “intellectual virtues” having to do with focus, motivation, and endurance. The researchers found no significant difference in either understanding or effort (as measured by time spent learning and answering questions) between groups. The null results were presented by Melissa Hopkins in the Social Sciences poster session. This project received an honorable mention!

Congratulations to all of the students who participated in these research projects. These students were in the mix with accomplished graduate students and their work fit right in.

Jason, Nate, and Nic come down to led support

Jason, Nate, and Nic lending support at a poster session

Now that the AAAS meeting is over, we are back to work on these and other important projects. We would also like to welcome three new student research assistants to our group! Carson Maurice ’19 and Naama Kipperman ’17 will be working on our project examining the relationship between understanding of the scientific process and trust in science. Greg Ruda ’17 will be joining the project exploring communication tools for more resilient beliefs.

For more photos from AAAS 2016, check out this album.

November Update

Merchants 006The PoPUS Project had an outstanding November — for which we are thankful! First, we had an amazing turnout for our “Merchants of Doubt” events, including a lively panel discussion following the screening with the film’s director, Robert Kenner, Naomi Oreskes (the historian of science on whose work the film is based), Michael Mann (the renowned climate scientist), and world-renowned magician and expert on deception, Jamy Ian Swiss, who was kind enough to “MC” the panel discussion. It turns out that while some pairs of these fab four have gotten together for screenings and events, all four have not been involved in the same event. It was obvious that they enjoyed each others’ company as much as we enjoyed theirs.

One of the themes that emerged was that the issues are bigger (and more interesting) than just motivated deception about the scientific consensus on climate change. This comes across clearly in the documentary and was a major theme in the discussion that followed. It is especially significant when the risks are as great as they are in the case of climate change, of course, but the manipulation of public opinion is something we’ve seen in many different areas and can expect to see in the future and goes to the heart of how information is transmitted. As Jamy says, “credit the con man”; but recognizing what’s going on in such cases — the “con” is all about the manipulation of confidence — should give us pause, as transmitting knowledge requires trusting others. This is an area we plan to explore philosophically and experimentally in the coming months.

Professors Oreskes and Mann for a Q&A

Professors Oreskes and Mann with students

The next day, Professors Oreskes and Mann offered a student-oriented Q&A/discussion that ranged widely over the difference between denialism and skepticism, the brewing legal issues for companies like Exxon Mobil (which was recently revealed to have their scientists working on understanding climate change from the early days — much like Big Tobacco), and what students and citizens can do to shift our present trajectory. (See also Oreskes’s recent Times Op-Ed on this.)

Professor Oreskes's FLS talk

Professor Oreskes’s FLS talk

Speaking of confidence, Professor Oreskes gave an extremely well-attended talk for faculty and students in the TLC’s Friday Learning Series lunch on “Why We Should Trust Science” (for a shorter presentation of early versions of these ideas, see her TED talk here). Notice that the title is why we should trust science, rather than scientists. A central theme in her talk was the importance of understanding how science operates as the activity of a community of inquirers — it’s not about placing our confidence in individual scientists.

Jamy Ian Swiss's Friday performance

Jamy Ian Swiss’s Friday performance

That afternoon, Jamy Ian Swiss and Robert Kenner did multiple classroom visits for Film and Philosophy courses (and guests), leading up to a lovely dinner on campus followed by a compelling lecture and performance by Jamy on “The Dynamics of Deception” about how expert deceivers work in a variety of contexts. It was a fantastic couple of days. We learned a lot, got some good feedback and advice on our projects, and enjoyed generating discussion on these important topics on campus and in our community. For more photos, check out our Google+ album here.

That’s just the first thing! Early this same week, we were delighted to learn that both of our poster submissions were accepted to the AAAS 2016 Annual Conference. Registration is complete and Bucknell’s Sprinter van is booked! D.C. here we come! We’ll post more information about these projects in due course.

Student-lead Case Studies and Sub-projects

Since this is my first blog post for the Production of Public Understanding of Science, I would like to take this opportunity to express how excited I am to be able to count myself as a member of this team. To learn more about me and my involvement with the project, please see Matthew’s post about my joining the project or my professional webpage.

Over the past year, the PoPUS team has worked on the theoretical side of public understanding of science, striving to develop a philosophical theory of understanding and its relevance to science education and communication. This work continues, but we are also branching into some empirical research on several sub-projects and case studies. Our student research assistants will be spearheading each of these projects, and developing both this_is_file_name_2552theoretical and empirical approaches to each case.

The first of these case studies will be examining the role of intellectual virtues — such as curiosity, open-mindedness, and so on — in individual effort to understand complex scientific topics. Melissa Hopkins and Julia Bresticker are leading this project, and will be drawing on recent work in virtue epistemology as a theoretical framework for this case study, which will include methodologies from Psychological research.

The second sub-project will be spearheaded by Jeff Bergman and Mack Jones. These students, with the help of their fellow researchers, will be conducting an in-depth literature analysis using digital text visualization and analysis software. The goal of this project is to get a better sense of the of the public understanding of science literature across several different academic fields, and the relation of previously existing work in the social sciences to the way philosophers think about understanding.

The third student-led case study examines communication methodologies, and more specifically communication styles and tools, used for conveying scientific information to the public. Nicolas Diaz and Nate Aspinall, who will be leading this study, will be utilizing anthropological, sociological, and educational methodologies to study various communication tools for complex scientific processes. They will be assessing the best strategies for communication based on understanding and resilience of true beliefs.

Finally, Victor LoPiccolo and Carolyn McGlynn will be spearheading research into public trust in science and scientists, specifically when it comes to matters of public health and well-being such as the safety of childhood vaccines and the urgency of the climate change threat. They will be assessing effectiveness of various sources of information, measuring public trust, and identifying potential ways to improve scientific communication efficacy.

I think I speak for the entire group when I say that we are eager to move forward with these projects and are excited to see where each one takes us. Expect more updates to come!

Student Research Team

from left: Jeff, Nic, Victor, and Caroline

from left: Jeff, Nic, Victor, and Caroline

from right: Nate, Mack, Melissa, and Julia

from right: Nate, Mack, Melissa, and Julia

Jason and Jo

Jason and Jo

Building on the philosophical approach we took to recent work in the social science of science communication last year, we will begin to pursue some empirical work of our own this year with the help of our new postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Jo Huxster, and an expanded team of student research assistants. We bade a fond farewell to Rachel Greenburg (class of 2015) and lost rising sophomore Erin Schwab to a project in Engineering more closely tuned to her career ambitions, but were lucky enough to pick up three new students: first-year Presidential Fellow Nate Aspinal (undeclared), junior Mack Jones (a Classics and Biology double-major), and Melissa Hopkins (a Philosophy and Psychology double-major). They join our five returning researchers, bringing the PoPUS crew up to an auspicious eleven (“one louder”, you know).

To start the term, we will be dividing our work between several distinct sub-projects under the public understanding of science umbrella, managed by Jo but spearheaded by student teams. The proximate goal will be to design some experiments that put our theoretical framework concerning the epistemic resilience of understanding over knowledge to the test and begin collecting pilot data in order to apply for further grant support. We will be updating this blog in the coming months with news of our progress.

The Project Continues!

While our funding from the Varieties of Understanding Project officially concluded at the end of June, we’re extremely excited to announce that the Production of Public Understanding of Science (PoPUS) will continue for several more years thanks to a generous grant from the President’s Office at Bucknell. Even more exciting is the fact that this funding has allowed us to hire a postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Joanna Huxster. Previously a Visiting Research Professor at Drexel University, Dr. Huxster received her Ph.D. from the University of Delaware in 2013 in Marine Studies with a Concentration in Marine Policy.

Dr. Huxster with University of Delaware students

Dr. Huxster with University of Delaware students

As a social scientist, she will be helping us to conduct some empirical studies concerning understanding and epistemic resilience when it comes to the public’s understanding of science, supervising our growing team of undergraduate researchers — something she already has great experience with. Here’s a press release concerning a recent publication on the understanding of climate change from her previous position.

Look forward to more exciting announcements about PoPUS projects and events in the coming months!

Varieties of Understanding Midpoint Conference

VoU 2015 002The Varieties of Understanding Project, which has funded our work for this year put on their first project conference. This “Midpoint Conference” (the project continues for the psychologists — data collection takes time, it turns out!) involved all of the grant-winners as well as commentators and plenary speakers for the Capstone Conference to come in Summer of 2016. It convened at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, in the fancy law school building, and was a fantastic affair.

Update: It turns out that you can watch all of the presentations — including ours!here. This is great news for us, because sessions ran in parallel, so we didn’t get to see all of the talks. A short paper version of our talk can be read here. We hope to expand this to journal-length in the fall term.

For photos from the conference, you can check out this gallery.

Dispatches from the AAAS

Jason and I attended the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in San José, California in mid-February and were pleased to see — not surprisingly — a great deal of interest in science communication. In addition to attending some top-notch, cutting-edge scientific lectures, we wanted to get a sense of where the broader scientific community is in their thinking about best practices for science communication.

IMG_2438What we saw was a bit of a mixed bag. One the one hand, there seems to be an appropriate amount of skepticism about the so-called “deficit model” of science communication (that basically says “what the public needs is simply more information”). There was also a good amount of attention to the role that values and framing play in science communication and several folks helpfully discussed the challenges that scientists face when they take on the role of champions and communicators and how to help meet those challenges. But we didn’t see as much as we were expecting that went beyond these points to think about the cognitive outcomes of various types of outreach. Though the deficit model is explicitly shunned, it still seems to hold sway in depicting what the end goal of science communication ought to be: the public knowing and believing more true things about science.

This is where we think our project can help. The next AAAS meeting is in Washington, D.C. Maybe we’ll be there. More photos from the trip here.

Spring Events Preview

Professor Mann

Professor Mann

As our work on the Production of Public Understanding of Science project has progressed, we have gravitated more and more to the climate change case study as both one of the most important and also one of the most illuminating for conceptual and pragmatic goals. Thus, our events for the Spring 2015 term will take on this thematic unity. We’re very pleased to announce two of our public lectures (more to come!).

On March 4th, Professor Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University, and indefatigable climate change communicator will give an evening lecture (precise time/location TBA). Professor Mann was a Lead Author in key chapters of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Assessment Report and the author of Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming and The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.

Professor Leiserowitz

Then on April 8th, we will continue the climate change theme with Professor Anthony Leiserowitz, Research Scientist in the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. One of the very important early contributions is the identification of the “Six Americas” concerning climate change — well worth a read. You will find much else of interest on the YPCCC page, including reports, quizzes, academic papers, and videos. Consider signing up for their excellent email updates, following them on Twitter, or listening to some of their 90-second radio series spots. Your understanding of climate change will only improve; indeed, your understanding of others‘ understanding stands to gain, too! Professor Leiserowitz’s lecture will also take place in the evening (details TBA).

We hope you’ll be able to join us for what promise to be interesting and important discussions.

Recap of Stephen Grimm’s Visit

Stephen Grimm, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University and Project Leader for the Varieties of Understanding Project (the main funder of the PoPUS Project), paid a visit to Bucknell earlier this month. His first stop was Professor Leddington’s Theory of Knowledge seminar on Monday evening. Our discussion focused on the nature of understanding and putting Grimm’s views in context with other philosophers. Grimm participated in the discussion and was very helpful in thinking and talking through examples to further our understanding of understanding. The members of the discussion were enthusiastic and engaged.

Stephen Grimm visiting Professor Leddington's Epistemology class

Stephen Grimm visiting Professor Leddington’s Epistemology class

The next day, Professor Grimm gave a public talk about how understanding people is different from understanding the natural world. There are two main views about this. One, the naturalistic approach, holds that understanding people is basically the same as understanding the natural world. The other is that we need a fundamentally different approach to understanding people—something like empathy—because human actions are fundamentally different from the behavior of a nonhuman. Grimm’s view falls somewhere between these extremes.

Stephen Grimm

For more photos from the visit, click here.

Grimm says that when we try to understand why someone performed an action purely naturalistically, there is a variety of understanding missing. Here’s his example: Your neighbor goes running only on certain days of the month. You have no idea why he runs on certain days and why he doesn’t on others. When asked, your neighbor tells you that he goes running only when there is a gibbous moon. When you get this information, you now have a better understanding of why he goes running only on certain days—a naturalistic understanding that stems from understanding the regularity. However, you might still have questions. For example, why would the gibbous moon be better for running than other moons? You still lack some type of understanding. You can’t really wrap your head around why your neighbor does what he does.

According to Grimm, while much of our understanding of people is structured like the understanding of the natural world, based on mechanisms and structures, the difference is that we also have to be able to make sense of their actions as desirable or choice-worthy in order to fully understand them. This is what he calls “understanding-as-taking-to-be-good,” and it is to be distinguished from empathy. Empathy involves putting yourself in the shoes of another person; however, understanding-as-taking-to-be-good involves no more than recognizing a certain end as desirable.

Grimm concluded his talk by discussing the relationship between understanding, morality, and our need to make sense of our own agency. He provided some well-known quotes insisting on the moral importance of understanding—for instance:

“Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love.” – John Steinbeck

Grimm’s hypothesis is that thinking of understanding in terms of taking-to-be-good rather than as grasping of structure promises to help us make sense of these sorts of connections between understanding and morality. Moreover, he thinks that if we try to think of our own actions merely naturalistically, then we will fail to understand ourselves as agents.

The Production of the Public Understanding of Science Research Team is thrilled to have had the opportunity and privilege to meet Professor Grimm. We all learned a lot!

PSA 2014

In addition to organizing a series of talks on understanding for the fall semester, we’re planning to travel to the 2014 meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, to be held November 6-8 in Chicago. Matthew will be giving a paper, and Jason will be soaking in the phil sci vibe, as this will be his first PSA. We’re especially hoping to connect and discuss our work with other members of the Joint Caucus of Socially Engaged Philosophers and Historians of Science, which put on a great session at the last PSA meeting.