On May 24-26, 2023, Center for Truth in Science board member Dr. Ted Simon, and Research Director Dr. Peggy Murray, attended the second Nobel Prize Summit in Washington, DC. 

The summit was hosted by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Nobel Foundation. It brought together Nobel laureates, scientists, and members of the public in a conversation on how we can combat misinformation, restore trust in science, and create a hopeful future. 

Below are some reflections from the Center for Truth in Science following the event. 

Day 1: Set the tone and rekindled our love for science

Dr. Simon says: 

The conference began with a video of a mouth reciting a strange and discomfiting poem, a commentary on disinformation interspersed with scientific jargon. The video stopped and a woman in a white dress took the stage. She held a camera in front of her face (yes, it was her mouth we’d seen). The recitation seemed to capture the uncertainty and malaise that oft accompanies a flood of mis- or dis-information. 

Dr. Marcia McNutt, former editor-in-chief of Science and now president of the NAS, pointed out that at the heart of science is the quest for truth. In corollary, she noted that science was the best humans can do to predict the effect of any action. 

Dr. Nat Kendall-Taylor, CEO of the Frameworks Institute, showed a slide titled, “Science unlocks mysteries and is awe-some.” Immediately, I felt the wonder and anticipation of learning about the universe, the same feeling that spurred my boyhood interest in science.

As a child, learning about science increased my comfort with the mysteries of the world around me. From the Golden Nature Guides, to my elementary school earth science class, to fishing off the dock behind my childhood home, each observation led to new questions, which led to new discoveries. It was nice to reconnect with that feeling.  

But back to the conference. After lunch, Dr. Martin Chalfie, 2008 Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry, pointed out two other scientific truths: 1) an experiment that confirms one’s hypothesis is a measurement; and 2) a measurement that doesn’t confirm one’s hypothesis is a discovery. 

The other high point of the first day for me was a talk by Tristan Harris, founder of the Center for Humane Technology, who eloquently noted that the mis- and dis-information currently beleaguering humankind stems from the combination of our paleolithic brains, our medieval institutions, and our god-like technology. 

Dr. Murray says: 

The first day of the conference brought together award-winning researchers to lead discussion about the frightening flood of information, misinformation, and disinformation—which was claimed by some of the speakers to be more of a threat to existence than climate change. 

From the start, it was clear we were sitting in a room of kindred spirits, each with an interest in trying to tease out facts and the truth about the world. If I had to guess, many of the people at the summit were curious about the world at a young age, like me. 

As a kid who read everything, I was astonished by the prevalence of medieval and magical thinking throughout human history. Reading about Ptolemy, Galileo, and others showed me the promise of how math and science could lead to more accurate explanations of the world.

I was glad to see that “creating a hopeful future” was an important piece of the discussion. Dr. Saul Perlmutter (2011 Nobel Prize winner in Physics) stated unequivocally that the truth is out there, and is very valuable. Dr. Donna Strickland (2018 Nobel Prize winner in Physics) spoke about the need for STEM education to go beyond just teaching scientific and technical facts, to teach critical thinking and the application of knowledge as well. 

She suggested scientists should not lead their communication with non-scientists by stating, “Science says…” but rather get into a dialogue that respects and includes their cultures, and respond to criticisms and questions, rather than attack. The goal is to help everyone become effective consumers of science. 

Many of the speakers emphasized the threat of social media and what was labeled as the “AI dilemma.” There is a race to manage engagement while not limiting the wonderful advantages of progress in these areas. How do we do this best? 

Day 2: Calls for education, regulation, and trust

On the second day, Dr. Simon participated in a deliberative polling event hosted by the Deliberative Democracy Lab at Stanford University. The most frequent topic of discussion was the need to regulate social media companies and how to balance regulation and freedom of speech. 

Dr. Murray attended a panel on “How to Move Forward” where Dr. McNutt stated that there are too many perverse incentives for for-profit social media platforms, and that scientists need to work together to help counteract this. She mentioned Wikipedia is actually a more reliable source of information because of its non-profit status and community surveillance of its contributions. 

Dr. Paul Romer (2018 Nobel Prize winner in Economics) said that we need to stop apologizing for regulations. The problems with AI and digital authenticity must be solved. He also felt it is possible to do this. 

Dr. Richard Roberts (1993 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine) emphasized that scientists should fight back. Dr. Chalfie said now is the time we should prepare for the next pandemic by building trust and working locally before the next emergency. 

Dr. David MacMillan (2021 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry) stated that science erodes for political reasons [remember what happened to Galileo?] as well as money and profit, and felt that more communication by scientists is needed. He asked, “Is there a shortcut to trust?” And answered, “truth.” 

The panel evoked the famous quote by George Shultz, “With trust in the room everything is possible. Without trust, nothing is possible.” 

Day 3: Solutions via education  

Just what is being done to educate humankind? On the third day, both Drs. Simon and Murray attended a session titled, “Trust in science: the importance of education in developing an evidence-based worldview.” 

Dr. Saul Perlmutter (2011 Nobel Prize winner in Physics) spoke on his efforts in spearheading the development, testing, and dissemination of a curriculum in critical thinking to teachers in both the U.S. and UK. He noted that critical thinking is not taught in school and one only learns it by osmosis when in a graduate program. Many of the scientists attending the conference agreed, and had experienced a similar thing.

Scientific education in primary and secondary school focuses on delivering information with little attention given to critical thought, logic, and the scientific method. The ability to reason and think critically about science is a necessary life skill. Without this ability, how can one give informed consent to a medical procedure or even discuss treatment options with a physician? 

Decisions in today’s world represent a balance between science and personal values. Obviously, this decision-making capacity is hindered by a lack of critical thinking needed to understand the science. Data is also needed, and data should underlie all discourse and answer questions. 

Dr. Perlmutter also pointed out the need for faith in science. He stated that scientific optimism enables one to stick to a problem until a solution is found—yes, it’s a form of faith. Continuing to work in our fields is a means of alleviating the anxiety of living with uncertainty. 

We also heard about the work funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation on teaching science in the age of misinformation. The credibility of science, and its future, depend on all of us knowing and following the process. Scientific discoveries are never the result of one person’s thinking—it takes a village to agree on the methods, examine findings, and replicate the results before a discovery becomes accepted.

Science works to remove conflicts of interest and depends on relevant expertise and scientific consensus. This is not taught often enough in educational institutions, which contributes to distrust in science. 

In conclusion 

Dr. Simon says: 

What I took away was hope and optimism that the next generation of humankind could indeed learn critical thinking and find the will to discover ways to solve the problems now facing our species and our planet. I even dared to hope that in some way the Center for Truth in Science could be a part of that effort. 

Dr. Murray says: 

I agree, especially if scientists are willing to come out of our—often too intellectual—spaces to engage in a respectful dialogue with everyone. While what happens in the lab is important, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Trust and relationships matter.