Panelists at Claremont talk science

Posted May 18, 2007
Seanette Garcia
Alan Leshner, CEO of American Association for the Advancement of Science, brought forth a new idea to Claremont Graduate University last Friday, which addressed science and its relationship with society. Leshner referred to stem cell research in his lecture, which he explained is a way to better our understanding of “When does life begin?” Leshner was formerly Director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse from 1994-2001.

The relationship between science and society today is diminishing, even though it is vital to make changes in society in order to improve life by using research gathered from social science.

These issues were addressed at Claremont Graduate University’s commencement last Friday in Galileo Hall by four panelists who each practice science in their daily lives and use research to try to improve society.

The panelists included Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; Diane Halpern, past president of the American Psychological Association; Richard Atkinson, former director of the National Science Foundation; and Faye Wattleton, president of the Center for the Advancement of Women.

“Science is to provide natural explanation of the nature and workings of the natural world whether we like the answers or not,” Leshner said.

He said that in order for people to prosper they need to have a fundamental understanding and comfort with science. In turn, science can only thrive if people support it.

There is a problem, however; the science-society relationship is diminishing because of tension caused by conflicts. Things that are going bad in the science community are undermining its credibility and overshadowing all the great progress it has brought. People believe scientists place too much value in science and not enough on religion, Leshner said.

Conflicts arise when there is scientific misconduct, altering experiment findings to prove a point and generalizations. Leshner said that people are not able to differentiate between science and non-science.

A study conducted indicated that 40 percent of people believe Astrology to be a science when the scientific community considers it a pseudoscience or superstition. Some scientific issues oppose core human values, such as embryonic stem cell research or evolution versus intelligent design.

Leshner said that intelligent design is not science and that science is restricted to the natural world.

People do not like when evidence cuts into core moral values, Halpern said. She said that beliefs are strong and that they, unlike science, do not require evidence. While scientists believe the insights gathered in research, Halpern argued that “real people take answers if they like them and reject them if not.”

“We need to practice scientific evidence based thinking whenever possible,” said Kathy Pezdek, associate dean of the Claremont Graduate University School of Behavioral Sciences and Organizational Sciences.

The quality of life can be improved by utilizing the data obtained from social science research. Social science is a science that studies the human aspects of society.

Halpern said that quality data is used to direct changes in policies to better achieve a goal and to improve decision making. However, “research is insufficiently valued to drive solutions,” said Wattleton.

“Science is never value-free, but it is the best method we have for decision making,” Halpern said.

Wattleton, who was the past president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, used studies so that patients did not have to succumb to the Squeal Rule.

Under the Squeal Rule, minor girls who wanted birth control would need to notify their parents before doing so. Studies conducted showed that only two percent of girls would stop having sex if their parents had to be informed.

“If we didn’t have that data, we wouldn’t have had the same result,” Wattleton said.

Another way research has been used to improve society was with the removal of the SAT I.

Atkinson, past president of the University of California System, used data collected in studies to prove that the SAT II was a better predictor of a student’s success in college than the SAT I. The SAT II is less affected by socio-economic background and has a higher level of math.

The science-society relationship must be improved and thus research will be able to be used to its greatest potential to administer change.

Halpern said that scientists cannot only communicate with each other through journals, but rather need to find a way to communicate with the public making research personally relevant to society. Scientists need to talk with the public, not to the public, Leshner said.

People also need to care about the issues faced by society and not only about the ones that affect them personally.

Leshner believes it is up to the public to become engaged in science and become aware of all social problems in order to restore equilibrium in the science-society relationship. “You need to do it.”

About 45 people filled the seats to watch the discussion.

“I thought it was provocative,” forum guest Kristine Kawamura said. “There was a wide array of issues raised that needed discussing.”

Ginny Ceballos can be reached at gceballos@ulv.edu.

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