Doron Weber

The Story of Science

Air Date: May 13, 2017

Doron Weber of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation talks about human understanding at the intersection of science and the arts.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Two years ago we welcomed National Science Foundation president Walter Massey and headlined our program “Laboratory of Art,” and again today we examine the intersection of science and the humanities with a pioneering cultural philanthropist, Vice President of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and author of the critically acclaimed “Immortal Bird,” Doron Weber leads it’s seminal program in Science and the Arts. Weber is an advocate of scientific literacy and has embraced storytelling to galvanize public understanding of science and its contributions to civilization. From groundbreaking films “The Imitation Game” and more recently “Hidden Figures” to critical digital libraries, Wikipedia, the Digital Public Library, and World Flora Online, to historical explorations, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Chronicle of Cancer,” and the correspondence of Darwin, Weber has made possible remarkable innovation. Full disclosure, including here too, as a supporter of exchanges of learning on The Open Mind, we thank him for that heartily and for being here today. Welcome, Doron.

WEBER: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: A pleasure to see you, pleasure to have you on two times now, with my grandfather the first time. As I think about those innovations that you championed, the Digital Public Library, Wikimedia, you know we’ve had the three executive directors here who’ve led that organization. We think about the importance of fact, and it could not be more critically important to the scientific method today. What is the commonality in, in your work in linking fact to the scientific exploration and storytelling.

WEBER: Start with Wikipedia, which is not art. It is interesting that Wikipedia, which is a community edited collaborative text production with uh, 80,000 volunteers, there’s almost no false news, fake news on Wikipedia, so it’s, you get a consensus, people coming together. In terms of the scientific process more generally though, the process of science of course has, needs peer review, double-blind methods, is very, very rigorous. Art has its own kinds of rigorous process but the challenge of translating science into art has to do with finding equivalent forms and, and, and compelling storytelling that will convince people without, while not being always documentary, accurate in a strict documentary sense that will capture the gist and hopefully will incite people to then go further and read more deeply into, into science.

HEFFNER: The reason Doron that I connect them is just because it is fact that is so germane to accurate storytelling. While persuasive, sexy, um, there are a variety of tactics you can employ to make storytelling effective, how have you decided which works to champion, which works will have that force and weight, not just the authority of storytelling but really the foundational facts.

WEBER: Well, we support six of the leading film schools, for example, in the country and so these are not, uh, we receive hundreds of submissions every year. We also work with Sundance, Tribeca, Film Independent, San Francisco Film Society, the Black List, so we’re constantly getting, uh, proposals from people, and I’d say we, there’s a mix between historical figures, so “The Imitation Game” you mentioned about Alan Turing. We have um, a documentary about Hedy Lamarr that we’ve been working on for a while, we’re also trying to make a feature film about her. There’s a play about Rosalind Franklin. You have to give some creative license, so a film like “A Beautiful Mind,” which won the Oscar and reached a lot of people, it’s not strictly accurate in terms of there’s not that much mathematics in it, and they took certain liberties, for example with um, with schizophrenia and visions, which again is not strictly accurate. However, that film then led a million people to buy the book by Sylvia Nasar which is very accurate and learn more deeply, so it’s a question of what, what um, what demand of proof you put in a work of art as opposed to a scientific paper and they’re, and they’re quite different.

HEFFNER: Well what about the book “Hidden Figures”?

WEBER: Well the book “Hidden Figures,” um, came to me three years ago from an unknown, unpublished author. She wasn’t an author, a woman named, uh, Margot Lee Shetterly and it was a remarkable story, I’d never heard it, and I was kind of blown away and um, the challenge was to get her support because she was unpublished and to convince my colleagues as worth taking a chance on her, and what I still remember is in the, um, in the manuscript she sent me, she had a sentence in there, she talked about how growing up in Virginia everyone she knew was in science and engineering, and she said when I was a child, I knew so many African-Americans who were in math, engineering, and science, I just thought that’s what black folks did, and that was such a wonderful sentence and overturned the stereotype we all have that I just thought that this is a story that everyone needs to know, so we gave her a grant that allowed her to take some time off and write the book, and then Hollywood, normally I would have to support the development of a screenplay about a book like that but Hollywood, um, grabbed it really fast. They saw the same thing I did, that it had great potential and then the rest you know. It was nominated for three Oscars. I think it’s grossed about over 200 million dollars and even more importantly it’s led to a cultural shift. So Sloan for example, for over 50 years we’ve been trying to get more underrepresented minorities to go into science and engineering, and one big hit, a work of art like that, I think has a huge cultural impact. So we’re already seeing scholarships, um, “Hidden Figures” scholarships. There’s a course, uh, Skip Gates has talked about starting at Harvard. It’s really ramifying in many ways in a cultural sense and is going to help our program in terms of getting more women and underrepresented minorities into STEM careers, so, it’s a home run for us.

HEFFNER: What is the, the ultimate goal? The ultimate goal in terms of fostering public policy that could be conducive to further integration within science.

WEBER: Well, so that, that’s a good question. I’d say there are multiple goals. So the, in, in a, in a work like “Hidden Figures,” certainly getting more, uh, underrepresented minorities to go into STEM and showing in fact that there is a history, an amazing history of accomplishment that we simply didn’t know. I mean the question is there, you know, the film has three women, portrays three amazing women, but um, I’ve talked to Margot, she’s compiling a um, an archive. There’s probably a thousand of these women who were involved in the space program, African-American women, and we didn’t know their stories. The question is why didn’t we know their stories? Now they’re coming forward, so their, how many other invisible figures like this are there in other fields. So in that sense, that was one aim and I think that aim is very much on the way to being accomplished. In the deeper sense of my program in its entirety, the notion is that science and arts really uh, it’s an artificial division and anyone who wants to be fully alive today, you can’t ignore science which is the most powerful source of systematic knowledge I think we’ve ever had, and it’s given us an incredible quality of life or at least half of the planet has given us, uh, a great standard of living. It’s allowed us to shape our planet, it’s allowed us to send a human to the Moon and send a um, a robot to Mars and send a probe into interstellar space. Allowed us to understand the gene, the atom, the neuron, and, and you know, and um, develop fields in uh, nanotechnology and biotechnology that have really given us, you know, tremendous, uh, goods and advantages, but at the same time, I think there are many questions that science still can’t answer, and in order to, how do you lead a good life? How do you bring up happy, well-adjusted children, or how do you even, how do you lose weight? How do you avoid a cold? How do you prevent wrinkles? How do you uh, stem the rise in autism and asthma? How do you avoid Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s? Um, can you live past a hundred? What is human consciousness? What is creativity, what is … there are a lot of questions science can’t answer, so you need to, you need to be able to have a full understanding of science and you, but you also need, uh, history, philosophy, literature, arts, languages, um, ethics, religion, all of them come into play. So the humanities by definition are what, that which makes us human, and humanities and the science together I think are, so that is, the deepest goal is to give people, to bring those “Two Cultures” in C.P. Snow’s famous terms, together and to kind of try to make people understand that it’s not an either-or question.

HEFFNER: Within that intersection, you raised a number of important questions. Which is the most important right now at this moment in history? Based on your, based on what you fund, based on what you discern in the field,

WEBER: Yeah.

HEFFNER: …of science.

WEBER: I think it’s, there are advances in science constantly and artificial intelligence is certainly one, and it’s going to enter every phase of human life and it’s going to give us enormous advantages, but it’s also gonna challenge things like work and just um, because basically any repetitive task is gonna be taken over by machines. We’re seeing it obviously in driving for example, all the driving occupation which is the largest, uh, I think male occupation in the United States and you could argue that part of the election was about a certain segment of the public understanding that there’s, they’re gonna be under stress. Some of those jobs might be going, may never be coming back, so we have to retrain people, we have to rethink even the definition of work. That’s certainly hugely important. Advances in bioengineering, things like CRISPR-Cas9 that allow you to essentially, they’re molecular scissors that let you pretty much snip anything you don’t want. In, in the human germ line we’ve never had that capability before. I think we’re going to need to uh, again think very carefully about how we use that incredible, um, technology, so I think there are a host of questions but I would say the most important, I guess, underlying message for me always is that you really need to have a full understanding of science in, in the modern world because it drives so much of our um, economy and our progress, but science on its own isn’t enough, so in order to have a fully educated citizenry we need people who are comfortable and conversant certainly with science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and economics as well, but also who don’t necessarily, um, who have a wider, more comprehensive view of, of life. That’s at least the, uh, the goal of my program at the Sloan Foundation, Public Understanding of Science and Technology.

HEFFNER: You mentioned the election. There is a current of denialism in response to scientific innovation, so how does the storytelling assist maybe more than any other factor…

WEBER: Yeah.

HEFFNER: …in reversing the denialism.

WEBER: Yeah. I don’t, now to be fair, what’s going on now is obviously unusual and unprecedented. However historically, science is, is, there’s not one party that supports science and one that doesn’t. I would say that, um, science, when people, when science doesn’t support your point of view, you become anti-science even, so from the, from the right we tend to get denial of climate change and um, we get creationism, but from the left we get the questioning of uh, GMO. We, the notion of uh, vaccines causing autism, so I think whenever it doesn’t fall in line with people’s views, they um, conveniently move away from science. I don’t think it’s a, you know, a single party issue. I’d say right now that bigger challenge is, uh, what’s called post-truth. I mean the very notion of a fact. You know, it’s raining, no it’s sunny. I mean those are really, you know, um, very fundamental yes or no kinds of questions that appear to be, uh, under some stress and so I think that isn’t really, um, it, it’s almost deeper than science in terms of what’s going on right now, but certainly to encourage, I think “Hidden Figures” which we mentioned before for example, one of the reasons I believe it’s so successful is that it actually appeals to both the left and the right. It’s a patriotic American film and I think both sides can find things to applaud in it. In fact I’ve never seen, I’ve watched it several times at different theaters and the audience gets unbelievably involved and, and active and applauds in the middle of the film, which is very unusual. So I think there is a way to reach people sort of in the center, and what makes them American and the values they embrace. I think we’ve kind of forgotten that and I think that’s why a film like that can bring people together. Um, and I would prefer to focus on let’s say the positive message and the ability to reach, to reach most Americans I think do still share fundamental values, but I think we have become very polarized, so works of art can bring people together, and when they do that, um, you can walk out of the theater and maybe have a slightly altered, I mean nothing instantaneous but it, it expands your understanding let’s say of other people.

HEFFNER: Where do you think there’s most potential to touch people’s lives.

WEBER: Well I mean I, one of the issues that we’re concerned about, um, is, is privacy. I mean I think the, as we all have, our lives have migrated online and we all have digital identities, I think it’s important for people to wrest back control of their digital selves and I would like to see a situation where you can ask for a credit profile and see what, what your rating is, what it’s based on, we should be able to ask, and I think the Europeans have this, I think it’s, it’s called “right to know.” I could say well, what does Google, Facebook have on me? I’d like to see my online profile, maybe I want to challenge some things in it, because many decisions are being made and they’re selling it to third parties, insurance companies, banks, um, employers, people are gonna be making all kinds of decision. It could be based on faulty information and algorithms that are coming with all kinds of strange, um, conclusions that may not be true, so I think it’s really important, uh, in the digital age for consumers to have more of a voice.

HEFFNER: Your investments in Wikipedia and the Digital Public Library have been long-term, steadfast. It’s one of Sloan’s I think, uh, most loyal sources of uh, information and knowledge. What is the long-term hope for literacy in the United States and, and abroad and why do you care so deeply about your investment in Wikipedia?

WEBER: Well, so the, you know, the confluence of mass digitization, the worldwide web, things like um, uh, cloud computing allowed for the first time for the body of human knowledge to be available to people, so that’s a wonderful opportunity, and I think our support of Wikipedia, Digital Public Library of America was uh, to ensure that this is done in the best possible way for the, for the public good, so as usual, and, and uh, and this is natural in a free market economy, you have companies coming in and seeking to monetize this, which they have every right to do, and a lot of companies are gonna do very well, and we wanted to make sure that this knowledge that belonged to everybody, the fruits of cultural scientific knowledge that have been really our, our heritage remained open, remained under, in the case of Digital Public Library of America, under stewardship of, of scholars and, and people who had committed a lifetime, librarians are very devoted to knowledge, to preserving it, to annotating it, to making sure you have the right edition, and it’s complete and comprehensive and so we care about quality, and over time I believe quality wins, but short-term, it doesn’t always pay. And you can make sometimes, it’s easier to make money with low-hanging fruit, so our support of things like the Digital Public Library of America is a kind of long-term commitment that over time we really need to take care of this heritage, this collective heritage, and make it available to everyone, make it as freely available as possible, free where possible, sometimes under reasonable financial terms and conditions where that’s not possible, um, but uh, it’s a kind of effort to democratize education. So in the sense of the Sloan mission, we believe in science and technology and we, it’s always, you know, technology is, is neutral, it’s amoral. I mean hammer, I could hit you over the head and kill you with it and I could build you a beautiful house with it. So it’s a tool, and every form of technology is a tool and it’s, and we want to make sure that that tool is used in a constructive way to build a better, a better world for people. So, so in, it’s that, it’s part of that philosophy that guides our support for Wikipedia and Digital Public Library of America.

HEFFNER: What we’ve seen from Sue Gardner to Lila Tretikov to Katherine Maher, who leads the organization now, is really their collective acknowledgment after years of your investment and growth that they are now the last line of defense of, against misinformation, what I’ve called the monetization of fraud. Now in the case of “Hidden Figures,” that’s the monetization of, of real information. You mentioned “A Beautiful Mind.” The book at least, and the movie to some extent, it’s a monetization and the inspiration that disseminates from that of real accurate information, but what I find so difficult to, to reconcile with the present reality is that folks view Google as indispensable and they don’t necessarily see that Wikipedia is maybe far more indispensable than Google.

WEBER: Well they’re, they’re, they’re co-dependent ‘cause you know, I think uh, about half of Wikipedia’s searches come through Google…


WEBER: So we, we like Google.


WEBER: Um, obviously uh, you know, you can search many other things on Google and Wikipedia is, it’s kind of the dream of what World Wide Web or what Tim Berners-Lee had in mind and I think Tim himself is concerned about, there’s a kind of locking down of the web to some extent. When you do a search now, what you’re getting is um, is really a lot of uh, the big five, um…


WEBER: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft are kind of um, pushing certain, um, things that are uh, monetizable for them, so I think it, Wikipedia is co—is a counter-force. I mean I think one of the challenges for Wikipedia is that the web is not used in the way it once was, so you now have much more, you have apps and you have portals like Facebook where people just come in through there and get so much of their information, and so we, we have to kind of rethink, we constantly have to change with the times and I think Wikipedia needs to continue to innovate and to um, but I think it’s still a wonderful corrective and, and so many people know, you know when you go there, while it’s not perfect, it usually is a very good synthesis and starting point for getting solid, credible information.

HEFFNER: But, but I think Doron that technology is not necessarily amoral anymore, the complicity of Google, in the perpetuation of so-called fake news and um, now they’re beginning, social media and sort of old new tech, Google, Yahoo, to take ownership of the fact that it’s a high voltage, high risk game, risk and reward, and it can be quite risky if you’re not ensuring the veracity of information that’s disseminated. Do you see technology still really as amoral.

WEBER: Um, you know, amoral in the sense, it’s neutral, I still think it, it’s about, technology is about us. It’s how we choose to use it. So Google, if you work for Google, it would make sense what they’re doing ‘cause they’re, they’re trying to make money and make their shareholders happy, but if you’re a consumer, then you have to worry, then you, we have to find ways to encourage better behavior. So one of, one of our notions, if we had a kind of a consumer organization that let’s say, and some people are doing this, are beginning to rank different companies in terms of how they treat consumer information so over time, maybe when you do a search, if you discover that Company A is protecting your information more than let’s say Google or Yahoo or, or Microsoft, you may slowly migrate there and that would encourage those companies will then, um, improve the protection that they provide to consumers ‘cause they won’t want to lose the business, so I don’t believe it’s um, I, I’m not pessimistic about it but I do think we have to kind of fight back and encourage better behavior, otherwise, um, otherwise we will get, we will get taken advantage of, so, and I think technology is both the problem and the solution to the problem. So in that sense, I believe it’s, it’s, it’s neutral or it’s, it’s, it’s um, it’s, it’s flexible and it’s, it’s really upon us…


WEBER: To use it in a more effective way.

HEFFNER: It’s certainly subject to manipulation, and the books that you identify as part of Sloan Arts tend to model the more moral, moralistic, um, positive notion of how technology can be viewed as a vehicle for pro-social growth.

WEBER: Right. Although we also supported, uh, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” for example, book by Richard Rhodes which, you know, won the Pulitzer and many other awards,


WEBER: And that’s certainly one example of both human ingenuity and brilliance but being used to create a destructive weapon so we’re not, we’re not…


WEBER: You know, we, we, we report it as, as it happens, um…


WEBER: But um, yeah we’re certainly, uh, take an optimistic view that, that, that technology can and should be, and science should be used to advance public good.

HEFFNER: So as you identify that, really your mandate, advancing public good through technology and the books that you identify, so our viewers understand in case they have an idea for a submission, what is your, what are your guidelines for the kind of book that you would support.

WEBER: Oh. Books, well I, I should also hasten to add, we, books, theater plays, we do a lot of plays, lot of films, radio, um, public television, new media, we’re exploring virtual reality right now. I think for uh, authors, um, we have instructions on our, you know, website about what, what’s required, but essentially you make the argument for your book. Um, it should deal with, you know, science, technology, economics, or mathematics, should be written for a general audience. Um, we’re not on the whole doing scholarly kinds of publications. Uh, though you mentioned the correspondence of Charles Darwin and that’s kind of a, an exceptional, um, uh, work of scholarship. It’s gone, for over 25 years, they’re still not finished. They’re going through Darwin’s life year by year, um, and I think we’re very open to all kinds, I mean Margot came to us again without any track record. I get a lot of proposals from better-known authors obviously that do have a track record. I think it’s just a question of how good the um, the proposal is. We have a book committee that you know, weighs in and then we have, and if the expertise isn’t on the committee, we send it out for external evaluation. Sloan is very rigorous about external, um, due diligence, so we, it will be gone over very carefully. It’s certainly got to be super-accurate. I mean there’s no, often what we do is when we like a book and we’re not sure but we will uh, put some money in to hire an expert in the, to make sure that it’s vetted very carefully, so um, we do take accuracy very seriously, but in works of art, um, as I said, there are some, you know, “Photograph 51” which is about Rosalind Franklin, a beautiful play that Nicole Kidman was in on the West End and we, we may be bringing it back to Broadway trying to make it into a film, it took certain liberties with Rosalind Franklin’s life. It wasn’t perfectly accurate. But it was, uh, a very good … it was based on a real understanding of the double helical structure of DNA. I took Jim Watson to opening night, had him sit next to me in case he was going to object.


WEBER: He didn’t, at least publicly. Um, he’s obviously a character portrayed in it so you know, it’s um, it’s plausible and based, and it doesn’t violate anything that we know but there, there are often, um, areas that no one will ever know. The play “Copenhagen” similarly, no one knows exactly what happened between Bohr and Heisenberg during that meeting, so Michael Frayn just took certain liberties but preserved what, the historical record. So we’re, you know, but there’s always, so poetic license is permissible within the bounds of, of scientific, uh, accuracy.

HEFFNER: What is that though. What, what is within the bounds of scientific accuracy… How much liberty or license…

WEBER: Well you can’t, I mean you, you, you can’t, uh…

HEFFNER: When does it disrupt the integrity?

WEBER: Well if it’s, if it’s scientifically, if you’re, if you’re proposing something that is, uh, physically impossible, I mean that is scientifically, you know, just not, not real, not science fiction I guess you could say, anything that is, or is um, could not have happened ‘cause it, it defies the laws of you know, thermodynamics, uh…

HEFFNER: But not the laws of character. We can…

WEBER: The laws, uh, you know…

HEFFNER: Right, we can make alterations to folks’ character…

WEBER: The lo—yeah, though as an artist, I mean their, character, when you develop a character, their, your own set of laws as, as a creator that actually are very rigorous in their own way, they’re different than scientific laws, and everyone knows you know it instinctively because you go see a movie or a play and you think I believe that or that character didn’t quite work for me. I’m not sure why but I wasn’t, you know, he wasn’t credible to me or she wasn’t credible to me.

HEFFNER: You don’t see it as a, a slippery slope if the character, the portrait, the protagonist is a 180 degrees…

WEBER: Oh, well if it’s based on a historical figure it’s, it should be accurate.

HEFFNER: Needs to retain some accuracy.

WEBER: Yeah, we don’t allow, yeah, absolutely. It’s got, it’s got to be, all the known facts have to conform, but then you can say, you know, we did a play about Newton, you know, um, poking his eye, you know, with a needle in order to understand color, the prismatic nature of color, um, it took certain liberties but the, it still, it kept intact everything we knew about Newton’s life as it, as it occurred, so we, we don’t allow things that are impossible and, and, and that are, fly in the face of fact. We just say there’s a, there’s a, a space there for, for creation, allowing the artist to come in and, and rethink and also make those people accessible and bring them, the Alan Turing film, “The Imitation Game,” took many, many liberties, um, with the record in terms of um, uh, you know, the, even the romance, some people, it was clear that he was a gay man but um, some people felt that the woman, female character got too much play, because those are the requirements of a Hollywood movie. On the other hand, um, you can read “The Enigma,” which is a, a very good biography of Alan Turing and get the full story, and it was able to bring the gist of Turing’s story to millions of people who didn’t know about it before, but you know, so I would say I would give that film a pass, even though it wasn’t perfectly accurate, but if, if the biographer came to me with, then I would be absolutely, um, you know, I, I wouldn’t accept any, any error whatsoever.

HEFFNER: Doron. Thank you for being with me today.

WEBER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Mind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.