UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies


Seminar: Sir Peter Gluckman: Can science advice be an effective bastion against the post-truth dynamic?

Start: Oct 18, 2017 04:00 PM

Location: Malet Place Engineering Building room 1.2


18th October 2017, starting at 16:30, with tea and coffee available from 16:00.


UCL Malet Place Engineering building, Room 1.2, starting at 16:30, with tea and coffee available from 16:00.


While the manipulation of facts and evidence is not a new phenomenon, the internet, social media and the changed nature of many mainstream media have spread the consequences and amplified the effect. The broad availability of both reliable and unreliable information that is difficult to distinguish means that citizens may no longer see the need for expert interpretation. Cognitive biases and the collective nature of knowledge within the echo chambers of social media can have a polarizing effect as they entrench misinformation and selective interpretation. Added to this is the declining trust in many of our established social institutions. The result is an increasingly post-expert, post-trust, post-truth dynamic. The complex interplay between politics and society in this environment has significant impact on policy making. Science itself is an institution and as such is potentially also impacted by this changed environment and the current settings in science systems create a number of incentives that could undermine trust in it. Though the sciences are only one input into the complex processes of policy-making, this new dynamic may tip the balance towards other sources of evidence: tradition, religion, entrenched beliefs and worldviews, observation and anecdote. Policy making will always be based on many societal values such as public opinion and electoral contracts: the primary role of scientific advice is to help the policy maker clarify the issues, evaluate the options and inform the consequences of each option. The key attributes of this practice of ‘evidence brokerage’ include: honesty about the limits and uncertainties in the evidence, humility about the conclusions that can be drawn, and trustworthiness in not advocating for a specific course of action. These attributes, enacted within a joined-up science advisory ecosystem offer a hopeful response in a post-truth era. But to be effective, this also requires a broader commitment to a more engaged relationship between science and society.

About the speaker

Sir Peter Gluckman’s research focuses on what gives us a healthy start to life: understanding how a baby’s environment between conception and birth determines its childhood development and life-long health - and the impact that this knowledge has for individuals and whole populations.

His research has won him numerous awards and international recognition including Fellowship of the Commonwealth’s most prestigious scientific organisation, The Royal Society (London). He is the only New Zealander elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science (USA) and the Academy of Medical Sciences of Great Britain.

In 2009 he became a Knight of the New Zealand Order of Merit replacing the 2008 Distinguished Companion of the NZ Order of Merit, for services to medicine and having previously been made a Companion of the Order in 1997. In 2001 he received New Zealand’s top science award, the Rutherford Medal.

The text of this talk can be found on Sir Peter's website.

STS research seminars

The purpose of this series is to provide colleagues with an opportunity to present their latest research results and discuss them within a collegial atmosphere. 

STS research seminars are open to scholars from any academic field. These normally are research intensive, specialised events, of interest specifically to scholars in the discipline. More upcoming talks in the STS research seminar series are listed in the STS calendar (link).