Panel discusses ways to combat skepticism toward science

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BLACKSBURG — A panel of academics voiced suggestions Sunday on ways to combat the growing presence of so-called fake news, particularly pertaining to skepticism toward science.

They pointed out that impactful discussions of science require effectively communicating the subject to the public.

“We have to understand there is truth, but it’s not simple,” said panelist Sylvester Johnson, who directs Virginia Tech’s Center for the Humanities and is an assistant university vice provost .

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“You can’t grandstand and just have a one-liner and say, ‘That’s it,’” he added.

The event took place at the Moss Arts Center and was billed as “The Role of the University in an Era of Science Skepticism and Fake News.”

The panelists called on the scientific community to increase its interactions with the public by diligently disseminating legitimate scientific facts and news.

There was also discussion on making science more easily understandable while being careful not to “dumb down” topics.

“At some point, it has to reach a mass audience,” said Robin Reed, the evening news co-anchor for WDBJ-TV (Channel 7), and a faculty member with Tech’s Department of Communication. Reed was previously a meteorologist for the station.

The panel referenced a recent comment from prominent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on the issue of science in the political sphere.

Tyson tweeted that a “subject is scientifically controversial when actively debated by legions of scientists, not when actively debated by the public, the press or by politicians.”

Politicians can hinder efforts to achieve better public understanding of science when they , for their own motives, misspeak about or distort scientific facts, panelists agreed.

The panel also talked about scientific facts and theories that are publicly disputed despite supportive evidence and research.

Among topics mentioned were global warming and evolutionary theory.

Sally Morton, dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Science, said science is a dynamic field still undergoing research and discovery.

Scientists should articulate that reality to combat assumptions that a theory is just a fancy way to describe a guess, she added.

“People expect science to have the truth,” Morton said.

Self-described “science commedian” Brian Malow, the panel’s moderator, expanded Morton’s point. He said a theory is “not just a bunch of hypotheses.”

“It has to have withstood so many attempts to disprove it, and the attempts don’t stop,” Malow said.

The panelists agreed that combating fake news or skewed points can be difficult.

People who gain much or all of their information online tend to agree with views that match their own, as they often click on links and visit websites that seem to confirm certain biases, the panelists said.

Audra Van Wart, director of education and training for the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, said academics and scientists can combat skepticism seen online by regularly sharing both major and small advances in science.

Van Wart said that process requires urging the public to do more research on its own

, including engagement with people “who are maybe saying something differently.”

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