“Science Matters” is a new lecture series with deep roots at WashU. Supported by the Compton-Ferguson endowment, the series aims to bring in experts and speakers who can explore scientific topics for a general audience. The first talk of the series on Sept. 18 will feature Ira Flatow, host of NPR’s Science Friday, in conversation with renowned climatologists Bronwen Konecky and Gavin Schmidt. Himadri Pakrasi, the Myron and Sonya Glassberg/Albert and Blanche Greensfelder Distinguished University Professor and director of the International Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability (InCEES), will introduce the panelists. The second talk, to be held Sept. 28, will be led by Christian Parenti, a sociologist, journalist, and filmmaker. Parenti's most recent book is Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. TR Kidder, the Edward S. and Teddi Macias Professor and chair of anthropology and professor of environmental studies, will introduce Parenti.
“I’m thrilled we have been able to launch this new science series and are starting it with such an important topic and outstanding array of speakers,” says Barbara Schaal, dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences and the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor. “I hope these events reach a wide audience and help excite and inform the students and members of the community who attend.”
The speakers will address the topic of climate change at both events. Jennifer Smith, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and a professor of earth and planetary sciences, says, “Climate science is both a critically important and amazingly complex field, and a topic on which all members of the global community should be informed. We are very fortunate to have the opportunity to be a part of a conversation that involves some of the leading climate scientists and a gifted science journalist.”
Michael Wysession, a member of the speaker selection committee and a professor of earth and planetary sciences, says, “Climate was chosen to be the first of the topics that we would address, but it won't be the only. We have a long list of exciting things to bring people in to talk about in future years, such as genetics, cloning, antibiotic resistance, cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence. Things that not only pose fascinating scientific questions to be addressed, but also carry with them very significant and heavy moral and ethical questions.”
As the committee examined the topics in front of them, one question kept arising, Wysession says. “How do we address climate change, especially in a political climate where there is such a strong political resistance based on the unfortunate conflict that many of the obvious solutions to climate change pose economic challenges to some very wealthy segments of our economy?”
“For example, if your solution is to burn less coal, burn less petroleum, and the coal and petroleum industries are some of the largest and most powerful lobbies in DC, there is an inherent conflict there that develops,” he says. “Exxon got into legal trouble because they lied to their own shareholders for decades, though they internally recognized the impacts of global warming. In fact, they were buying up tracts of land in the Arctic because they knew all the ice would melt. And yet they're telling their shareholders, ‘No, no, climate change is a hoax. Nothing's going to happen.’ And when you're dealing with something as severe as climate change, where the effects are so dramatic and so complex, then it is easy for a public to be misled by ‘alternative facts,’ or ‘fake news’ coming from elements of our leadership.”
“One problem right now is there is this confusion that science is just another belief system as opposed to being a system that provides fundamental knowledge of the natural world,” Schaal says. “It’s how we know what the world is like. That’s what I love about science and what I really want people to understand. It’s also what we need to teach young people, so they can use scientific evidence to make informed decisions when they get out into the world.”
As an example of the critical importance of this, she cites the recent crisis in Flint, Michigan where lead contaminated the town's drinking water and caused a public health crisis. “If you understand the consequences to human health of various parts per million, you can design effective public policy to reduce those consequences,” she says. “That’s just common sense and the right thing to do. We don’t have to make it political.”
Smith adds, “The work of science doesn't stop with lab results or model outputs — communication of results within a discipline, within the community of scholars, and with the public at large is an integral piece of the process if the knowledge that scholars create is to have an impact beyond our labs and classrooms. That's why it is so important to have events like these that bring us together to learn about issues that impact us all.”
For these reasons, it was important to the committee that the chosen speakers would be able to address these complex topics for the general public. Wysession says, “We could have gone with the world's leading expert on mylonite shear zones in subduction zone areas, or some esoteric aspect of a science, but it's our responsibility as scientists to not just do our work and write for specialized journals that get locked away in a tower somewhere, but to make sure that we do everything we can to foster a science-literate public. If we can educate our students and community members who attend these lectures, even a little bit more on this issue, then we're doing our job.”
The Compton-Ferguson endowment is made up of two gifts. The Arthur Holly Compton Lectures began in 1963 with a gift from James S. McDonnell in honor of Compton, Washington University’s ninth chancellor and one of America’s great scientists. McDonnell was a member of the university’s Board of Trustees and president of McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft Corporation.
The William C. Ferguson Lectures were established in 1961 through a bequest from Ferguson, a friend of Compton, to bring distinguished scientists to the university. Though originally separate series, both the Compton and Ferguson lectures are now supported by the Ferguson endowment and organized in conjunction with WashU’s Assembly Series.
The committee is overseen by Schaal, with Provost Holden Thorp serving as an ex-officio member and Smith and William Tate, dean of the Graduate School as standing members. In addition to Wysession, the other members of the speaker selection committee were David Freidel, Petra Levin, Jay Ponder, Renato Feres, Francesc Ferrer, and Rebecca Treiman. The committee also included Barbara Rea of the Assembly Series and was chaired by Ebba Segerberg, director of communications in Arts & Sciences.