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Guest lecture with Nobel Laureate Saul Perlmutter

24 June 2019, CSSB

Nobel laureate Saul Perlmutter gave an inspiring talk. Photo: Marta Mayer/DESY

On 24 June 2019, more than 200 people crowded into the auditorium of the Center for Structural Systems Biology (CSSB) to listen to Saul Perlmutter, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics and professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley.

In his talk on “Science, Reality, and Credibility - The Necessity of Critical Thinking”, Prof. Perlmutter spoke about ways in which critical thinking used in science could be taught to a wider audience also of non-scientists. Perlmutter came to Hamburg upon invitation from DESY Zeuthen. The talk was organized and presented by PIER.

The starting point for Prof. Perlmutter’s ideas is the observation that populism and political polarization are on the rise in almost all western societies. In the age of social media, filter bubbles, and social bots, populist ideas and fake news spread with incredible speed across whole countries. In order to stall this development and defend democratic values, it is becoming ever more important to enable people to critically appraise the truth content of information on the web and elsewhere.

“Science can teach them how to do so”, said Perlmutter. “There is a body of techniques and practices that is usually implicitly taught by apprenticeship and osmosis to graduate students and postdocs in the sciences”, Perlmutter explained. “Equipping future generations with this scientific-style critical thinking could be one of our most reasonable defenses against confused thinking and misinformation, both major challenges to our democratic societies’ ability to make deliberative decisions.”

According to Prof. Perlmutter, the underpinnings of scientific thinking are the belief in a common, shared objective reality, the careful distinction between correlation and causation in causal reasoning and the acceptance of the fact that reality is complex and often not easy to grasp. Scientific methods like probabilistic and statistical thinking or blind analysis can help people to grapple with human cognitive failings like confirmatory biases. Another facet of scientific thinking that Perlmutter considers to be helpful also for non-scientists is what he calls the “can-do” aspect of science – the optimism that even extremely difficult problems can be solved if worked on thoroughly and for a long-enough time. Last but not least, Perlmutter is convinced that group thinking, if understood as “wisdom of crowds” and not as herd thinking, can be useful when making decisions in politics or economics.

After the talk, the audience engaged in a lively discussion with Prof. Perlmutter, also debating ways in which his concepts of teaching scientific-style critical thinking to future generations of students could be integrated into German curricula. A small group of PhD students had the chance to meet with Saul Perlmutter during a DOIT lunch meeting before the talk and discuss scientific and non-scientific topics in an informal atmosphere.

About Saul Perlmutter: Saul Perlmutter is a 2011 Nobel Laureate, sharing the prize in Physics for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe. He is a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he holds the Franklin W. and Karen Weber Dabby Chair, and a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He is the leader of the international Supernova Cosmology Project, and director of the Berkeley Institute for Data Science and executive director of the Berkeley Center for Cosmological Physics. His undergraduate degree was from Harvard and his PhD from UC Berkeley. In addition to other awards and honors, he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In addition to over 200 scientific publications, Perlmutter has also written popular articles, and has appeared in numerous PBS, Discovery Channel, and BBC documentaries. His interest in teaching scientific-style critical thinking for scientists and non-scientists alike led to Berkeley courses on Sense and Sensibility and Science and Physics & Music.

Some impressions from Saul Perlmutter's talk

Photos: Marta Mayer/DESY

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