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Mitchell Center hosts Thomas Dietz in lecture on scientific decision making

On Thursday, Sept. 21, the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions hosted its 11th annual lecture on sustainability. The keynote speaker was Thomas Dietz, a professor of Sociology and Environmental Science and Policy at Michigan State University. The title of the talk was “Facts versus Values: How can we make better decisions?”

Dietz began the discussion with a quote from Andre Gide. “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”

The main focus of Dietz’s lecture was the concern that humans are hurtling toward a reckoning with the changing climate and quickly evolving technology.

Dietz emphasized that the climate-related problems we’re dealing with now are about to become much more serious. He reminded the audience of the gravity of our situation, pointing out that the current species extinction rate is 1,000 times higher than usual and the ocean is more acidic than it has been for millions of years.

Dietz’s worry is that our society has turned climate change into a political issue and

Americans are more divided than they have been in decades. He cited a Pew Research Center study showing that members of the United States House and Senate have been crossing party lines less frequently every year.

The other primary focus of the lecture was that humans, as a society, could be caught off guard by the advancement of technology, especially artificial intelligence. Dietz argued that humans have the ability to think through problems using values instead of facts, but robots operate purely on logic and statistics.

Humans in less skilled jobs are very likely to be replaced by robots in the future. These sectors make up a large section of the job market, including professions in manufacturing, marketing and accounting. With this on the horizon for our capitalist society, Dietz questioned if Americans will find themselves welcoming a 10-hour work week or struggling with an unemployment rate near 75 percent.

The overarching theme of the lecture was that the scientific community is not trusted enough. Dietz said, “For four decades, about 40 percent of the public expressed ‘a great deal of confidence’ in science.”

He expressed frustration toward the public’s tendency to listen to politicians before scientists. He was eager to praise organizations like the University of Maine Mitchell Center for acting as the bridge between science and the public.

Dietz also offered his own solutions to the divide between the scientific community and the American public. He urged reducing the influence of money on politics, fighting gerrymandering and supporting politicians with close ties to science.

After Dietz’s keynote address, Brady Davis, UMaine 2017 graduate, introduced former U.S. Senator George Mitchell. Davis, a recipient of the Mitchell Scholarship, expressed his gratitude to the senator. The Mitchell Institute has given financial assistance to over 2,500 Maine students.

Mitchell used his time to warn the audience that Maine will be one of the areas most affected by the changing climate. According to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, since 2004, the Gulf of Maine has warmed faster than almost anywhere else on the planet.

“The threat is not distant for the people of Maine. It is here, it is now,” Mitchell said.

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