Photo of conference in progress at Massey Hall. Angela Chong.

On September 30, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), in conjunction with U of T’s Massey College, hosted an inaugural talk on science and society. Entitled Doubt Everything: How science is transforming the way we think and the world we live in, the talk featured a presentation by CIFAR President & CEO Alan Bernstein, followed by a panel discussion led by Junior Fellows Maripier Isabelle and Trevor Plint of Massey College.

Opening remarks by the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, captured the collaborative and innovative focus of the event. After acknowledging the complexity of science-policy interface, Dowdeswell quoted Harvard’s E.O. Wilson: “the ability to identify where different domains cross paths and to blaze new trails from their dimly lit intersections, is increasingly the enterprise of the intellectual vanguard.” Dowdeswell also pointed out, “we need to understand how science is done and what contribution that it can make so that we can begin to address the really formidable government, institutional, and behavioural challenges that limit the realization of the full potential of science.”

In his presentation, Bernstein elaborated on the recognition and exploration of dimly lit intersections. He pointed to the inter-disciplinary migration of a group of physicists in the mid-20th century that incited the revolution of molecular biology, and created an entry point for discussion of scientific processes and progress.

Exploration of the structure of DNA by Watson, Crick, and Franklin was preceded by the migration of these physicists, who flouted convention in reframing the question of biological inheritance, Bernstein reminds us. With reference to the countercultural thinking of those physicists, and what biologist Lewis Wolpert has argued to be the frequently counterintuitive nature of scientific findings, Bernstein explained his adoption of The Inquisitor’s rebuke from Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo, “These men doubt everything.” Bernstein adopted this line as an endorsement of doubt, and highlighted comfort with doubt as a point of distinction between scientific methodology and science as it is broadly conceived and utilized outside of the scientific community. During his talk he said, “perhaps the most difficult lesson for non-scientists to understand is this — on the one hand, science, and the knowledge that comes from science, can be both definitive and call for policy change, while at the same time [it] is subject to continual revision and modification.”

Bernstein expressed concern that, “because most non-scientists view science as a static collection of facts, this constant and dynamic reshaping of ideas is, at best, disconcerting and, at its worst, an excuse for inaction.” However, he maintained that this capacity for change in understanding is what underlies the transformative power of science in society, and credited writer and cultural anthropologist Mary Bateson in saying, “the possibility of correction, of constant reshaping, is one of science’s greatest strengths.”

Through examples, Bernstein illustrated that the role of science in society is not limited to material discovery and technological innovation, but includes the work of social scientists who, for example, “asked whether execution was an effective deterrent [to crimes such as petty theft], or whether the elimination of extreme poverty and building inclusive societies was a more effective, as well as more humane way, to deal with crime.” Bernstein argued that as much as doubt has the power to transform our understanding of the world, science could serve to inform the management thereof — both in facilitating change, and adapting to it.

Accordingly, Bernstein concluded by calling the scientific community to continued action in society: “And so it follows that the scientific community has two overarching responsibilities to society: first, to create knowledge that furthers our understanding of our world and the cosmos in which we live. And second, it is to ensure that the values that come from doubt, the challenging of authority and the questioning of accepted wisdom – is enshrined for future generations.”

Master of Massey College Hugh Segal moderated the conference.

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