Marcia McNutt Delivers 2019 Pardee Center Distinguished Lecture

Marcia McNutt, the President of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), discussed the role of science in what has been called the “post-truth” era when she gave the 2019 Pardee Center Distinguished Lecture at the GSU Metcalf Ballroom on March 5. The lecture, titled “The Past, Present & Future of Truth,” was sponsored by the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future.

Before a crowd of about 250 members of the Boston University community and beyond, McNutt explored the nature of scientific truth, how the public’s perception of science has changed over time, and what must be done to ensure public trust in science in the future.

McNutt began by providing an overview of what she called the scientific hierarchy of truth, with the scientific method at the apex as “the most trusted approach to discovering the rules of the natural world,” followed by consensus and, finally, individual studies. In this context, she discussed various public misperceptions about science, particularly the beliefs that vaccines cause autism and that HIV does not cause AIDS. She argued that one possible cause for public skepticism of science is a barrage of differing messages on issues like the health benefits or detriments of coffee, and the inability of the public to distinguish between these sorts of unsupported pronouncements and “hard-won” scientific consensus. Whereas scientists acknowledge the abundance of evidence needed to establish a consensus, the public often does not distinguish between a consensus and an individual study. As a result, “truth gets wrapped up in the question of who you trust.”

McNutt, who was editor-in-chief of Science journals from 2013 to 2016, also explained the evolution of scientific literature and the peer review process. In the past, truth was established by asking a couple of simple questions: whether the work published in a high quality peer-reviewed journal, and whether the authors have a reputation for excellent, quality-controlled research. However, in recent decades, the size of the research enterprise has exploded with more than 2.5 million papers per year published by an increasingly international and interdisciplinary community of experts. This has led to a dramatic rise in scientific misconduct, particularly in countries where the research enterprise is growing the fastest, and a growing number of “predatory journals” with publication fees and poor or nonexistent peer review and quality control. The response of scientists, McNutt argued, must be to demand independently replicated results and transparency with respect to data, methods, financial support, and conflicts of interest.

Drawing on several NAS studies on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), forensics, and immigration, McNutt reflected on the conflicting realities between science as practiced and science as the public wants it to be. Whereas scientists generally remain dispassionate and readily acknowledge caveats and uncertainties, the public expects scientists and their stories to be interesting and is often uncomfortable with, or confused by, the concept of uncertainty.

McNutt concluded by laying out her vision for the future of truth. She argued that the scientific community needs to be able to “systematically signal trust” with a method for showing what has been peer reviewed and the quality of that peer review. She also stressed that scientists must learn to become better communicators, and to speak not just to the public’s minds but also to their “hearts and souls.” At the same time, she argued that non-scientists must better understand the scientific method and must become more savvy consumers of scientific information.

The lecture was followed by a wide-ranging discussion with the audience led by Pardee Center Director Anthony Janetos.

The full lecture and discussion can be viewed in the video above.