Scientia 2017 Fall Lecture Series focuses on facts, evidence and knowledge

In today’s information age in which there is no shortage of facts and “alternative facts,” news and “fake news,” the problem of deciphering trusted information has never been more pertinent. When all information is not upheld to the same standards of evidence, what should we believe? That is the question the Scientia 2017 Fall Lecture Series seeks to explore: the meaning of facts, evidence and knowledge.

“The Scientia series is a labor of love for me,” said Rick Wilson, the Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Political Science and professor of statistics and of psychology and director of the Scientia Institute. “I was exposed to Scientia when I first arrived to Rice in 1983. I’ve gone to a lot of the lectures over the years, and I’ve always walked away having learned something.”

Scientia, a faculty-led institute at Rice that promotes multidisciplinary engagement to benefit the university and the Houston community at large, focuses on a particularly relevant theme each season.

“Facts, evidence and knowledge was a theme we had on our list for a while,” Wilson said. “With the current political climate, there was no better time to tackle it.”

Theories about facts

Richard Grandy, the Carolyn and Fred McManis Professor of Philosophy, presented the first lecture of the season Sept. 12. He spoke about how science contrasts facts with theories and how law contrasts facts with opinions. This theorizing about facts leads beyond truth and knowledge to issues of evidence and perception. He asserted that facts reside in a space between the mental realm and independent reality, meaning ineffable facts are no use in reasoning or arguing with others. Rather, what actually matters is representations of facts, which are human constructions.

Talking climate: Why facts are not enough

Katharine Hayhoe, atmospheric scientist and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, will present the Oct. 17 Scientia lecture at 4 p.m. in McMurtry Auditorium.

Hayhoe will discuss the challenge posed by human-induced climate change to society and the natural environment, which has been summarized by thousands of studies and reports. As the scientific evidence builds, however, public and political opinion remains sharply divided along ideological, socio-economic and religious lines. Hayhoe will explain how understanding the reasons that have created and fed this polarization is crucial to the success of outreach efforts that attempt to bridge this divide.

Political conspiracies, rhetoric and alternative facts

Concluding the season, Wilson will speak Nov. 14 at 4 p.m. in McMurtry Auditorium.

He will focus on the “new political reality,” in which alternative facts are a meaningful part of political dialogue and discuss the power of political conspiracies. Looking at former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate controversy and former President Richard Nixon’s Apollo 11 landing, Wilson will detail the underlying psychological principles driving believers and point to the rhetorical advantages gained by politicians for promoting conspiracies.

Scientia is an institute of Rice University faculty founded in 1981 by the mathematician and historian of science Salomon Bochner. The lecture series provides an opportunity for scholarly discussion across disciplinary boundaries; its members and fellows come from a wide range of academic disciplines. For more on Scientia and upcoming events, visit


About Kendall Schoemann

Kendall Schoemann is a staff writer in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.