The Center for an Informed Public (CIP) at the University of Washington has announced its first cohort of affiliate researchers. These faculty and research scientists bring a variety of perspectives from across the UW, adding to the interdisciplinary depth and expertise of the Center.
The researchers include Carl Bergstrom, a professor in the Department of Biology; Mary Fan, a professor in the School of Law; Franziska Roesner, an associate professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering; and Jason Young, a senior research scientist at the Information School. Bergstrom, Roesner and Young have collaborated informally with the Center since its launch in December 2019, while Fan is the most recent addition, joining in April.
As a biologist who studies misinformation, Bergstrom has had a particularly high profile during the coronavirus pandemic, appearing on numerous major media outlets including BBC News, The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal to advocate for “flattening the curve” as the virus first took hold in the United States. He’s become a go-to expert for The New York Times and other news organizations throughout the crisis as they interpret models charting the pandemic’s possible paths forward.
Bergstrom said he was drawn to working with the CIP by its research and education missions. On the research side, he said he is interested in understanding how changes in communication technology are changing human collective behavior and affecting our ability to obtain reliable information about the world, maintain democratic governments, pursue scientific research on a global scale, and solve collective problems such as climate change. On the educational side, he’s been focusing on the need to teach critical thinking and data reasoning skills to audiences from secondary school students through professional scientists.
“I see mis- and disinformation as one of the most pressing problems of our time, problems that we must solve if we have any hope of dealing with climate change, preserving democracy, maintaining public health, and many other important goals,” Bergstrom said. “My whole career has led to me to these problems, and I’m committed to pursuing this direction with my entire energy in the coming years.”
Bergstrom holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University. He and CIP Director Jevin West teamed up on the Information School’s popular “Calling Bullshit” curriculum, which led to a book, “Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World,” coming Aug. 4.
As the Jack R. MacDonald Endowed Chair in the UW School of Law, Fan brings a different kind of expertise to the Center: experience in government service and as a scholar trained in law, anthropology and epidemiology. Fan’s expertise includes U.S. and international criminal law and procedure, evidence, privacy and immigration. She has worked as a federal prosecutor and as an associate legal officer at the United Nations war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. She holds a J.D. from Yale Law School, a MPhil from the University of Cambridge, and also is a PhD candidate in Epidemiology at the University of Washington.
Fan said she wanted to work with the Center because she shares an interest in promoting public understanding about what counts as proof and decision-making based on quality science. Competing versions of the truth and power over proof are major themes running through her work, including her recent book, “Camera Power: Proof, Policing, Privacy and Audiovisual Big Data.”
“What draws me to the Center are the brilliant technologists and information scientists who work there,” Fan said. “A portion of my work (and book Camera Power) is about advanced analytics on aggregated data. The connection to technologists will enhance and enrich my projects. I also hope that my background as a scholar of evidence, criminal law and procedure, and law and epidemiology may be useful in potential future collaborations.”
As a computer scientist, Roesner approaches the problems of misinformation and disinformation by drawing on her experience studying computer security. She co-directs the Security and Privacy Research Lab in the Allen School, and much of her research focuses on improving security and privacy for people using technology. For example, her work has studied computer security and privacy challenges for sensitive groups such as journalists, refugees, and survivors of human trafficking and developed new solutions for security and privacy in emerging platforms, such as augmented reality and smart homes.
Roesner, who holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science & Engineering from the UW, has recently shifted to focus some of her efforts to understanding and mitigating how social media and other online ecosystems spread misinformation, making the Center a natural fit.
“Understanding and addressing technology-enabled mis- and disinformation is a fundamentally interdisciplinary challenge, and I am particularly excited by the CIP’s potential to bring people from across the University together,” she said.
With his focus on rural and Indigenous communities, Young will bring a valuable perspective to the Center. In his work with the Information School’s Technology and Social Change research group, he has studied the challenges and opportunities that information and communication technologies present to those communities. He’s particularly interested in how those technologies introduce new worldviews and value systems and what impacts those have on historically marginalized communities.
“I believe that my qualitative research in rural settings brings a unique skillset and perspective to the CIP, given the ways that misinformation is exacerbating urban-rural divides,” he said. “I think that my focus on rural communities, my methodological approach, and my grounding in critical theory can all invigorate the scholarship at the CIP.”