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SASS Speakers Discuss Communication, Engagement, Participation

The Social Activism Speaker Series (SASS) hosted three events in October to kick off its fall term programming, attracting approximately 130 students, faculty, and staff. The first two events focused on scientists in public policy, and the last event was an overview and general discussion of local ballot issues for this year’s elections.

The first event, a screening of the Merchants of Doubt documentary and Q&A with Jet Propulsion Laboratory historian Erik Conway, highlighted disinformation campaign case studies in climate change and the tobacco industry. The screening revealed tactics used by unscrupulous think tanks to control public opinion. Additionally, it addressed the culpability of media sources that give legitimacy to false claims like climate change denial by portraying such claims as having equal weight in a misplaced effort to present an opposing side. After the screening, Conway answered questions on how to effectively combat these campaigns and discussed the role of scientists as a source of legitimacy and consensus in society. He stressed that when scientists talk to the public at large, they need to help them see the meaning and impact of the research in their lives beyond the scientific jargon and highly technical detail.

(L-R) SASS committee members Kai Matsuka, Elyse Pennington, Benjamin Riviere, historian Erik Conway and Kathleen Kennedy at the screening of Merchants of Doubt

The second event was a lunch seminar with Jamie Tijerina, a Caltech scientist who began civic engagement after moving to Los Angeles. Jamie discussed her journey working directly toward the advancement of science, the arts, and community through her work as a scientific researcher and through her involvement in local government with the Neighborhood Council system in Los Angeles. She organized a local 314 Action group for Los Angeles County, encouraging other STEAM professionals to become civically engaged.

In the third event, representatives of the Pasadena League of Women Voters discussed California and Los Angeles ballot propositions and initiatives. The League of Women Voters encourages informed and active participation in government. They proposed a methodology for analyzing ballot measures, discussing in detail what is proposed, how much it would cost, and analyzing who is supporting and opposing the bill. They stressed the importance of tracking the funding for support/opposition in order to understand the motivations of the groups.

With a solid start, the year should continue to yield significant dialogue, engagement, and learning opportunities for all who attend.

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