Scientia 2018 Spring Lecture Series focuses on facts, evidence and knowledge

In an age of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” the problem of deciphering trusted information has never been more important. What can we believe, particularly when facts are disputed or held to different standards? That’s the unifying question behind the Scientia 2018 Spring Lecture Series.

Scientia Lecture Series imageScientia is a faculty-led institute at Rice that focuses on a relevant theme each season to promote multidisciplinary engagement benefiting the university and the Houston community at large.

The spring series will begin Jan. 11 with the Bochner Lecture, named in honor of Scientia founder Salomon Bochner. All lectures are at 4 p.m. in Duncan Hall’s McMurtry Auditorium. Here’s how each speaker described their lectures for the new season.

‘The Fiction of Memory’ — Jan. 11

Elizabeth Loftus, distinguished professor of social ecology and professor of law and cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine:

“For several decades, my research group has been busy tampering with people’s memories. Sometimes we change details of events that someone actually experienced. Other times we plant entire memories for events that never happened. Time and again, we have found that people can be led to falsely believe that they had experiences, some of which would have been emotional or traumatic had they actually happened. False memories, like true ones, also have consequences for people, affecting later thoughts, intentions and behaviors. If false memories can be so readily planted in the mind, do we need to think about ‘regulating’ this mind technology?”

‘What’s a Fact Anyway? Insights From a Journalist, a Scientist, a Lawyer and a Sheep’ — Jan. 23

David Leebron, Rice University president and professor of political science:

“What constitutes a fact is very much intertwined with a view of what constitutes sufficient proof of a fact. The notion of fact therefore depends on what we take as appropriate evidence of a fact. How do we define facts in different contexts, and how do we determine when a fact is established? Is it a matter of authority, process or belief? When Joe Friday says, ‘Just the facts, ma’am,’ what is intended to be excluded from the realm of facts? And if we are in an age of ‘alternative facts,’ what is it that defines the legitimacy (or illegitimacy) of the alternative?”

‘Giving Science Advice to the President Is Getting Harder — Do Facts Really Matter Much?’ — Feb. 20

Neal Lane, senior fellow in science and technology policy at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, the Malcolm Gillis University Professor Emeritus, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy, former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and former science adviser to President Bill Clinton:

“I will focus on how U.S. presidents have chosen to receive facts and advice on scientific and related matters since the end of World War II and why it has become increasingly difficult for science advisers to be effective. Facts matter, at least they have in the past, but trust has always been the key. Using a few examples from my time in the Clinton administration, I will attempt to cast some light on how one goes about trying to bring facts, evidence and truth to the president, vice president and West Wing colleagues, all of whom work in an intensely political environment. I will offer a few observations on the current situation and suggest ways to move forward.”

‘The Questionable Relevance of Facts: Information, Beliefs and Identity’ — March 20

Johanna Dunaway ’04, associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University:

“Fake news, filter bubbles and other features of the communication environment are often blamed for facilitating extreme political polarization and a post-truth disregard for facts. And while expanding media choice and the proliferation of new information platforms provide ample opportunity to avoid facts and attend misinformation, one of the clearest findings to emerge from the literature is the centrality of existing beliefs and predispositions in motivating information-seeking behaviors. In short, beliefs and predispositions drive information consumption more than they are shaped by it. Emerging evidence suggests the changing nature of political identity is as much to blame for undermining factual information as any structural change to the media.”

For more information about Scientia and its upcoming events, visit

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.