KVML Hosts a “Common Decency in Science” Panel

Readers of Slapstick may remember Vonnegut’s quip about showing “a little less love and a little more common decency.” How can that apply to science? KVML hosted a panel of four scientists who discussed possible answers to that question. The panel took place on the evening of Wednesday, June 14th, at the Indiana Historical Society. Pam Blevins Hinkle, the director of the annual Indianapolis community festival Spirit & Place, moderated the panel. Gregory Silver, a lobbyist and environmentalist, and Dr. Chris Stack, a retired orthopedic surgeon, gave the opening speeches.

Hinkle, speaking just before the panel starts.

One of the first questions for the four panelists was, “What is the definition of common decency in science?” Answers differed somewhat.

“Not all opinions are equally valuable,” said Gabriel Filippelli, an earth science professor at IUPUI. “Opinions and viewpoints [should be] based on fact.”

Janet McCabe, former administrator for the EPA Office of Air and Radiation, had a different take. She said that in her work as a public servant, she focused on “always remembering who it is that I’m serving and, with true humility, truly listening to all perspectives.”

From left to right: Hinkle, Farrell, McCabe, Filippelli, Lemons

Another question asked how the panelists had formed their ideas on what common decency. Silver had mentioned in his beginning speech that his Judeo-Christian upbringing taught him to be “a servant to the earth.” In his speech, Stack used the Hippocratic Oath as an example of “medical common decency.”

“I take great pride in the strides we’ve made in reducing our impact on the environment while serving the community,” said panelist Dr. Lisa A. Farrell, Director of Advanced System Integration at Cummins, Inc., about her company. She also said Cummins requires all of its employees to undergo ethics training, which is not always typical for engineering companies.

McCabe credited raising her children with informing her about common decency. Children have strong, clear opinions on how the world should work, said McCabe, so she learns a lot from speaking to them about common decency.

The other panelists agreed that children and young people are crucial in determining the future of our planet. Filippelli said he asks his students each year to take a stand on whether discovering alien life would influence world religions. He said he’s always amazed at his students’ reasoning skills.

“Young people themselves have a higher degree of civility than I would imagine,” said Filippelli, “and especially from what’s reflected on Facebook.”

“We should be watching and intentionally listening [to] and observing our children,” said Dr. James A. Lemons, a retired professor of pediatrics at IU School of Medicine. “Learn what decency is for a child by asking [around] in the hospital these days.”

“There is moral leadership in some of these big companies, thank goodness,” said McCabe in reference to Cummins. “They’re all run by young people.”

Just before the floor opened for questions from the audience, the panelists explained how common decency is threatened in their respective fields. Farrell made a connection to Vonnegut’s Player Piano, saying Vonnegut’s fears of “autonomous vehicles” and “eliminating human interaction” are still prevalent today.

“He was either an incredible visionary or we haven’t gotten very far since the 50’s,” said McCabe about the novel.

McCabe said if she were able to give one piece of advice to U.S. presidents – a situation which, she conceded with a smile, is unlikely – she would tell them it’s okay not to eliminate every policy enacted by the previous administration, even if you are from a different party. That’s what the Trump administration seems to be doing, she said.

“This is no way to run a country,” said McCabe. “In four years, everything can be wiped out or redone . . .”

Filippelli said high levels of pollution are teaching us one important thing: “We are global.”

“People deserve certain standards of living,” said Filippelli. “They deserve water. They deserve food. When did we forget that we are part of a globe?”

The panelists took questions about the intersection of economics and science, environmentally friendly execution of public policies, and the things that give them hope that common decency will win the day.

“We are not immoral people,” said Silver, who hopped up to a mic to answer some of the questions. “We simply have immoral leaders, that’s all.”

A close-up view of McCabe, Filippelli, and Lemons.

The panel closed with each member suggesting one way laypeople can help the spread of common decency in science.

“Make decisions based on our values,” said Farrell.

“Thank and support either a public servant or a scientist,” said McCabe, “and tell your kids to do the same.”

“I was going to say hug a scientist, but . . .” said Filippelli. He added, “Please recognize that your Facebook feed is not the citizens of the United States.”

Lemons quoted the Persian poet Rumi in his response: “We are simply walking each other home.”

“It’s the journey that’s important,” said Lemons, “and, while we’re on the journey, caring for each other through common decency.”

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