Professors discussed Monday how the differences between science and the public can be reconciled through a commitment to interdisciplinary practices.
“Science and Its Publics: Bridging the Divide,” part of USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ “Uncommon Conversations” event series, featured a panel of three faculty members from the USC Dornsife 2020 Research Cluster in Science, Technology & Society: K.C. Cole, a professor of journalism, Antonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience and Deborah Harkness, a professor of history.
The panelists each provided an overview of their unique experiences negotiating the gap between science and society, as evidenced by the current controversy over issues such as stem cell research, vaccinations and evolution theory.
Andrew Lakoff, a professor of sociology and director of the Science, Technology & Society cluster who coordinated the event, said the event was part of a broader effort to introduce the work of all of the research clusters that make up the USC Dornsife 2020 Initiative.
USC Dornsife Dean Howard Gillman established Dornsife 2020 to encourage work across disciplines around relevant thematic clusters. Thematic clusters serve as the central point for new research initiatives and related academic programs to encourage interdisciplinary work among faculty within Dornsife.
Lakoff said the most immediate purpose of these clusters is to discover “… what needs should be addressed in our research and our teaching.”
According to the panelists, these needs centered on two main objectives: effective communication and unifying different academic and professional disciplines. In her overview, Cole discussed the necessity of appealing to the pathos of a public that otherwise might be turned off by the scientific community.
“The public isn’t stupid,” she said.
Cole said it is alienation that poses a bigger threat to an understanding between science and the public. She stressed that one cannot think without feeling, and scientists need to take that into account when attempting to communicate with society at large.
Harkness said her experience bridging the gap between science and the public mirrored her ongoing efforts to bridge the gap between science and the humanities.
In doing so, she echoed sentiments expressed by Lakoff on how the issues addressed by the panelists were intrinsically tied to the interdisciplinary academic approach.
Student participation in the discussion seemed to demonstrate the diversity of interdisciplinary interaction the panelists hope to achieve.
“It was going to address some of the matters we discussed in my Science, Technology & Social Conflicts class,” said Stephanie Gottlieb, a freshman majoring in business administration.
Jeremy Slap, a sophomore majoring in philosophy and neuroscience, said he attended the discussion because it is important to know how to reconcile science to the public.
“You shouldn’t have to have a degree to understand basic life concepts,” he said.
Edwin Choi, a junior majoring in English, said he also saw the program as broadening his horizons.
“I hope to gain a better understanding of the effects of technology on society,” he said. “You have to educate the general public on important matters.”
Students said reconciling science and the public is an important topic to address in the modern world. This is an attitude Lakoff believes will soon manifest itself in classrooms at USC, if it hasn’t already.
“This could open up a conversation that becomes part of conversations in science classes at USC,” Lakoff said.