Dietrich School series hopes to show how science works


A new series of free public conversations, dubbed Science Revealed, is set to begin April 15, aimed at helping people understand how science works — and how it should be used.

Series co-organizer Jonathan Rubin, mathematics department chair in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, said the idea grew from discussions with the school’s natural science chairs and has broadened to include many other school departments.

Despite the fact that science and empirical data are more important and prominent than ever today — to show the success of the COVID-19 vaccines, for instance, or the validity of an election — “it sort of is harder and harder to tell what’s real — there’s more misinformation and disinformation out there,” Rubin said. Science Revealed will feature experts on how the scientific process really works, addressing how science is conveyed to the public and how to get everyone to be “informed consumers of science,” he said.

The first program at 7 p.m. April 15 is “Safety in Numbers? The Use (and Misuse) of Data in Society.” (Advance registration by April 12 is required here.)

It will feature:

  • Statistics faculty member Lucas Mentch on “Data in the Justice System” — the value and danger of using data for “everything from validating forensic science procedures, to investigating disparities in police killings, to creating algorithms to predict prison sentencing.”

  • History and philosophy of science faculty member Sandra Mitchell on “What data can and cannot tell us,” including how “the difference between judgments of efficacy and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines exposes the additional considerations required in knowing how to use scientific data in different contexts.”

  • History faculty member Lara Putnam on “Social Media and Social Movements: Crowdsourcing Knowledge, Combatting Disinformation” — on the manner in which “social media has created new ways for people to learn about and join social movements … but social media has also made it possible for disinformation and false narratives about protestors and social movements to spread.”

  • Mathematics faculty member Thomas Hales on “Safe data with encryption” and “the ‘crypto wars’” — how “some governments are fighting against strong encryption.”

It will be moderated by Lisa Parker, director of the Center for Bioethics & Health Law.

Series co-organizer Satish Iyengar, statistics faculty member, says future Science Revealed sessions may focus on how hesitancy about the COVID-19 vaccine among some parts of the public has been generated, and on the effects of air quality on local neighborhoods and climate change overall.

Getting people to understand how the scientific method works is one of the goals of the series, Rubin said, and to overcome human beings’ tendencies to believe something without or despite evidence from credible sources.

But science itself can seem rather mysterious: “A lot of science to a non-scientist … does have the aspect of faith,” he said. “We believe in these subatomic particles that we can’t see. We believe in vaccines” when most people getting the vaccine have no deep understanding of what happens inside their bodies.

“How do you help people believe evidence that they can’t touch themselves?” he asked. That’s where Science Revealed comes in, with presenters explaining the process of repeated testing and discussing how to maintain the accuracy and integrity of communication about science. Science is always evolving, and when one research result gets into the media and then the next month there is a contradiction in the headlines, “that means the process is working,” he said.

Asked for whom the new series is targeted, Rubin said: “I would like to have everyone” attend — high-school students and their parents, academics and alumni and Pittsburgh residents in diverse neighborhoods.

“There is enthusiasm and demand for this sort of thing,” he said, “so hopefully we can have some impact.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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