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.