A faculty panel explored the University’s role in communicating reliable knowledge in an age of distrust and distortion, as part of the two-day celebration of the inauguration of Martha E. Pollack as Cornell’s 14th president.
The topic — “Universities and the Search for Truth” — was chosen by the president herself, who has highlighted it as the central theme of inquiry since her arrival on campus.
“I think President Pollack chose the topic because it is both universal and incredibly timely,” said Prof. Bruce Lewenstein, communication, who served as the panel’s moderator.
The panel consisted of a range of faculty members identified by President Pollack from across the Cornell community, including guests from the New York City campus. Each of the panelists were from different areas and offered understandings of the nature of truth in his or her own field.
Prof. Sarah Murray, linguistics, spoke about truth through the lens of language.
“Language itself doesn’t ensure the truth or reliability of information,” she said. “It’s how we use language and communication and who’s using the language that are judgements about that.”
In discussing the possibility of communicating truth through language, Murray said that language is “a public resource that is sometimes exploited by people for their own purposes.”
Prof. Mor Naaman, information science, mentioned the distortion of truth in terms of technological development.
“Modern media technology is killing truth and knowledge,” he said.
“Digital technology created an accelerated dynamic where, on the Internet, ‘believers in anything and everything can find thousands of fellow fantasists,’” Prof. Naaman said, quoting novelist Kurt Anderson.
He further emphasized how technology can “undermine truth and knowledge.”
“Some mechanisms enhance and direct participation in online spaces, including our desire for social approval,” he added. “Other mechanisms impact how we evaluate and even retain information — for example, social proof, confirmation bias and the backfire effect, causing us to reject information that does not agree with our beliefs.”
Prof. David Shalloway, molecular biology and genetics, spoke about the framework of truth through the lens of a scientist.
“Data is observation, information is the interpretation of the data, and knowledge is broad statements and theories explained by large amounts of information,” he said.
According to Shalloway, this truth and accuracy functions as a “reputation” that is critically important for scientists. “If you’re caught in scientific fraud, your reputation is lost,” he said.
Prof. Holly Prigerson, sociology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, noted that “Truthiness, like half-truths, is ubiquitous in medicine, particularly in the areas that I study, such as the end-of-life cancer care.”
She underscored the role of trust in truth for science and medicine, adding that the medical field relies heavily on an objective version of the truth.
“There is a need for big pharma and physicians to be more forthright in … presenting patients with full, honest information,” she said. “Turning half-truths into whole truths and avoiding truthiness that is saying what patients want to hear rather than what they need to hear, is a prescription for better end-of-life care.”
Whether it is in digital media, medicine or the political realm, panelists emphasized, greater commitment to truth must be facilitated by academic institutions.
“While I think many of us might disagree with some of the points made tonight, I think you can agree that conversations like this are the essence of universities,” Lewenstein said.