Scientists and Public Forums

Alvin Saperstein

Two of the major concerns expressed at the Business Meeting of the Forum on Physics and Society, held at the recent Columbus, Ohio meeting of the APS, were the growing lack of support for science on the part of the present American government and the apparently swelling disinterest of the American public in the processes and results of science as they relate to public policy. Both of these concerns, are, of course, strongly coupled. Traditionally, the professional bodies of science have concentrated on lobbying governmental bodies for support, assuming that enhanced governmental interest would filter down to the general public. For the most part these scientific groups have ignored direct interactions with the “man in the street.” This “filtering down” has apparently not been very successful recently. Thus, it seems important at this time for individual scientists, or small groups of them, to endeavor to interact locally with groups of fellow citizens, emphasizing process, results, and public and private implications of their science.

As an illustration of what can be productively done, a small group of us have created a traveling “road show” for the Detroit metropolitan area. This panel includes a physicist and political scientist from Wayne State University, a political scientist and an ethicist from Henry Ford College, and a physicist from the University of Detroit Mercy. (The real world is not easily divided into the traditional academic disciplines and this interdisciplinary panel approach recognizes different disciplinary approaches and concerns but connects them together for the public — and for each other!)

We have put on panel discussions — roughly 20 minutes by each presenter, some with power-point slides — followed by audience questions and response — on the subject “Nukes in Your Future”. We have presented at area Colleges, Senior Citizen complexes and Community Centers, with audiences ranging from about a dozen to well over 100 people in the audience. We continue to seek further venues, especially in the “out-county” areas. We have found the senior audiences concerned about the prospects of nuclear conflict though with little factual basis for their concerns, the youthful audiences oblivious to this problem. We think we have buttressed the concern of the “seniors” and awakened the “juniors”. The younger audiences are mostly used to interactions with academics and so remain quiet on the whole; the elders find it novel to being addressed by professors and so respond very actively. Hopefully the knowledge and concerns we impart will have some immediate effect on voting behavior and eventual impact on public policy.

There is no need for FPS members to struggle through the creation of an interdisciplinary colloquial traveling group. There are many community groups — churches, synagogues, mosques, alumni groups, book and discussion clubs, community centers — made of up senior and/or middle-aged citizens who would welcome scientific insight into current important public issues from locally based professional scientists. (They are more likely to think about and/or accept local expertise than public expertise from distant sources.) Many colleges have such knowledge within their ranks — active and retired faculty, students, alumni — and should be strongly encouraged to publicly announce their availability to their communities. The political aspects of the issues cannot be avoided, but the presenting scientist should be careful to avoid the appearance of being partisan.

I have given a number of well-received talks at a Detroit area group called SOAR (Society Of Active Retirees). This group was initially an off-shoot of Wayne State University, known as the “Society of Alumni Retirees”. It became an independent organization as alumni of other educational institutions indicated that they too wanted to participate in such informational presentations. The group offers a wide variety of “courses”, ranging from history, politics, arts, cinema and theater, humanities, social, biological and physical sciences. The “courses” range from single one-or-two-hour sessions to multiple sequential sessions over several weeks. People in the area, mostly seniors, sign up in advance, upon receipt of the course catalogue which is published twice a year. I have given Power-Point slide presentations on two separate topics: The “science of climate change” and the “science of nuclear weapons and their use”. I do not claim to be an “expert” on either of these topics, but I am much more informed about the basics and their applications than most of my audiences, which usually number about 50 people. My talks usually go for about an hour-and-a half, and there is never any difficulty filling the scheduled two-hour sessions with audience questions and responses – even from those on the opposite side of the “political fence.”. My talks are strictly neutral, presenting the history, technology, and strategy of all sides of each issue. If asked during the question period, I will briefly give my own opinion (and make sure it is clear that it is a personal opinion, albeit based on the facts and information I presented earlier in the session.)

There are many other important topics which can be similarly productively addressed: climate, population, public health, natural resources, ground, air and water pollution, general matters of environment, war and peace. Science and scientists can greatly aid the public in reaching productive rational decisions on these pressing matters. They should strive to be actively involved in the public discussions. The public policy “theater” takes place on a physical stage whose pitfall can best be elucidated — and thus avoided — by the scientific community. These public presentations are one more way to do this interactively — and also for the scientists to learn from the public what they, and the public, need and want to know.

Alvin Saperstein
Wayne State University

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.