Arts & Sciences’ new “Science Matters” lecture series aims to bring in experts and speakers who can explore scientific topics for a general audience. The first event featured public radio's Ira Flatow in conversation with climate scientists Bronwen Konecky and Gavin Schmidt.
A version of this article was produced for Arts & Sciences' Hold That Thought podcast. To hear audio from our conversation with Ira Flatow, click the link above.
Science Friday at WashU
If you ever listen to public radio, you’ve almost assuredly heard of Science Friday. The call-in radio show boasts more than 1.8 million listeners every week, with 400,000 more tuning in through the podcast. Host Ira Flatow has built the show’s massive following by doing something that scientists and universities sometimes find difficult – making scientific topics engaging and accessible to the general public.
On Sept. 18, Flatow brought his skills as a science communicator to the Danforth Campus for the first-ever Science Matters lecture, hosted by Arts & Sciences in partnership with the Assembly Series. For the event, Flatow moderated a panel discussion between Bronwen Konecky, a paleoclimatologist who will join the earth and planetary sciences department in Arts & Sciences this spring, and Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist and the director of the Goddard Institute for Space Sciences.
Talking about climate change, then and now
The Science Matters event marked one of Flatow’s many encounters with climate science over the years. Science Friday got its start in 1991, but Flatow’s career in science journalism for public radio began much earlier. “The first Earth Day, which was 1970, was my first science story,” he recalls. In the 70s, most scientists believed that “just about now we should be entering another ice age,” he says. But instead of hearing about the Earth getting colder, he soon encountered the idea of global warming for the first time.
Flatow remembers standing on a glacier in Antarctica, watching a scientist probe the ice. When asked what he was doing, the scientist responded with something along the lines of: “Well I want to know how much ice there is here, because it's possible this could all melt someday. It’s possible that the Earth could be warming.” It was 1979.
“People think science is a big book that sits on a desk, and that's science. They don't understand that science is a method of getting at the truth.”
Decades later, the relatively new Science Friday aired an episode called ‘What's this thing called the Internet?’ In hindsight, the conversation was hilarious – one listener had the outlandish idea of using the internet to download music. A scientist on the show had a more serious, if similarly prophetic, hope for the internet.
Flatow describes the scientist saying, “‘You know, I would like to be able to use it to do this, and this, and this.’ He went through a cavalcade of different things, of different kinds of research. And one of the things in his list was global warming. It just went by, like no one paid any attention. Because we had started talking about the greenhouse effect, but no one ever had dubbed it global warming.”
The phrase kept occasionally popping up – again in the mid 1990s, and then with increasing frequency after that. “People have been talking about this longer than we've been paying attention to it,” Flatow says. “So it's really not that new, although it's now becoming so evident.”
A communications problem
Despite the amount of time and effort spent studying climate change and the consensus of scientific opinion on the topic, communicating the seriousness of the problem (or even its existence) has been a challenge for the scientific community. Several explanations for this disconnect were discussed in the Science Matters panel. At one point, Bronwen Konecky emphasized the importance of values, in addition to facts. The public needs to understand the humanitarian effects of global warming, she said. Gavin Schmidt has worked to make scientific concepts more visual and understandable (like in this graphic), and believes more work can be done in that arena.
Flatow sees an additional problem, one that contrasts with earlier environmental movements of the 1960s and 70s. “In those days, pollution was a very visible thing. Rivers were burning. You could see the air. Pittsburgh had the lights on during the day because there was so much pollution in these places,” he says. “Now it's a different thing. You can't see CO2. You can't see some of the effects of global warming.”
“In those days, pollution was a very visible thing. Rivers were burning. You could see the air. ... Now it's a different thing. You can't see CO2. You can't see some of the effects of global warming.”
That part of the equation, however, is changing. “We are beginning to see it. We're beginning to see the intensity of the hurricanes. The wildfires that we're seeing are more intense. So we're almost going back in time a little bit, to where the effects are so visible that I think people will begin to believe it more,” Flatow says. “The conversation is going to change, I think. We're already seeing politicians who started with 'this doesn't exist,' moving all the way to, 'well maybe it's not man-made,' moving to, 'well maybe it's a good thing' – beginning to admit that it's happening, at least.”
Why science matters
For Flatow, the premise behind Arts & Sciences’ new lecture series makes a lot of sense in today’s world. He strongly believes in the importance of educating the public about global warming, and also more broadly in communicating what science is and why it matters.
“Science matters because everything that we do – all of our human activity – has a basis in science. Science really does matter,” Flatow says. “People think science is a big book that sits on a desk, and that's science. They don't understand that science is a method of getting at the truth.”
Getting at the truth is something that most people care about, Flatow has found, whether they’re listening to public radio or attending an event at WashU. “People really want to know exact things about how the world works,” he says. “Where do we come from, and where are we going, and how do we get there? That's what science does, and that's what we try to do.”