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Cressman Lecture: "Can Science Be Saved?"

Friday, March 12, 2021 at 12:00pm

Virtual Event

During the COVID-19 pandemic, public debates about the validity of scientific findings and the value of science overall have intensified, as some Americans have actively resisted and even denied the legitimacy of scientific guidance about how to address the disease. What are the social and psychological drivers of public skepticism about science? How can skeptics be convinced otherwise? According to Naomi Oreskes, professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, people won’t be persuaded with more science or more facts. They deny scientific findings because they do not like the implications of their veracity—what Oreskes terms “implicatory denial.”

To convince deniers, their fears and ideologies must be addressed. Some Americans hold a worldview that prioritizes the inviolability of individual rights and the sanctity of the economy above all else, and adhere to an ideology of “limited government.” Oreskes contends, “This runs very, very deep in American culture. It ties into an extraordinary individualism that you don’t generally see in other places in the world. We tend to be more resistant to collective action in the United States than people in other countries. And it ties into this very, very deep idea in American culture that the government that governs best governs least.”

Naomi Oreskes will explore the complexities of Americans’ denial of scientific findings and skepticism about science in her 2020–21 Cressman Lecture “Can Science Be Saved?”  via Zoom.

As Oreskes explains, “Many Americans think that we face a general crisis of trust in science. With the rejection of mask-wearing by many Americans—as well as many of our political leaders—it is easy to come to that conclusion. But evidence shows that the vast majority of Americans do, in fact, trust science.  Scientists (along with doctors and nurses) remain among the most respected and trusted figures in American life. However, Americans do distrust and reject science in particular areas, and we know something about why that is: Americans reject scientific findings and advice when they dislike their implications. Often this involves a perceived threat to our individual freedoms and personal liberties, or to strongly held beliefs. In the COVID-19 crisis, irresponsible political leaders fomented the idea that asking a person to wear a mask was asking them to give up their freedom. This, of course, was preposterous; wearing a mask is little more than an inconvenience. Still, because the question of mask-wearing has become entangled with the question of personal choice, solving it will not be a matter of giving people more or better information.  This means that scientists will have to accept that asking people to trust science is more than a matter of asking them to accept facts; it is also a matter of ethics, morality, and citizenship.”

Oreskes is a leading public intellectual on the role of science in society, the reality of anthropogenic climate change, and on anti-scientific disinformation campaigns. She has written numerous books including Discerning Experts (2019), Why Trust Science? (2019), and Science on a Mission: American Oceanography from the Cold War to Climate Change (2020), and the forthcoming The Magic of the Marketplace: The True History of a False Idea with Erik Conway. 

Oreskes’s lecture is free and open to the public. Registration is required to participate in the live Zoom event. The talk will be recorded and available for viewing on the OHC’s YouTube channel. For more information, contact