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Fighting for science in the era of 'fake news'

Smeal professor discusses the role of corporations in a democracy on Democracy Works podcast

Jun 11, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Michael Mann began his career, he was far more comfortable being in the lab than in the public eye. Over the past 20 years, he’s found his voice and used it to stand up for peer-reviewed science amid attacks from corporations, legislators and the media.

Now more than ever, Mann says it’s critical for scientists and other experts to make their voices heard amid the chaos of "fake news" and research that’s funded to sow doubt about climate change and other issues. Mann discussed his part in the national conversation about climate change and the role of experts in a democracy on the latest episode of the Democracy Works podcast, produced by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy.

“Over time I've come to embrace this role because, in the end, what more noble pursuit could I be engaged in as a scientist than this pursuit to inform the public conversation about what may be the greatest threat we face as a civilization,” Mann said.

Mann is a distinguished professor of atmospheric science and the director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center (ESSC). His research involves the use of theoretical models and observational data to better understand Earth's climate system. He was a lead author on the “Observed Climate Variability and Change” chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Scientific Assessment Report in 2001. He contributed, with other IPCC authors, to IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, "Climate Change 2007," for which the IPCC was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore.

Mann said there’s power in the scientific community coming together to fight for its work. The power of many voices speaking as one makes it much more difficult for those looking to discredit science to be successful. The same principle applies to democracy, he said, where the power of the collective is stronger than any individual vote.

“I would say ultimately the only real solution is democracy and the democratic process and people getting out and voting,” he said.

Hear the full interview at or by subscribing in iTunes or Spotify. For more information about Michael Mann, visit

Is conversation the answer to what divides us?

World in Conversation executive director on the value of dialogue in a democracy

May 29, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — We’ve all been there: A family dinner or other event where the conversation turns toward a topic will lead to disagreement. Maybe it’s politics, or perhaps it’s something else entirely. Either way, it seems like it’s not even worth trying to have a conversation.

Laurie Mulvey, executive director of Penn State’s World in Conversation project, offered insight into how to handle those situations — and why it’s important to do so — on the latest episode of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s Democracy Works podcast.

Mulvey said the key to overcoming ideological divides is getting past surface-level conflicts to forge deeper connections that transcend opposing points of view.

“We're always trying to find the beliefs that are underneath the facts,” Mulvey said. “Often times, the ground has to shake a little bit before other ideas, other facts or other information can be even considered.”

The World in Conversation has conducted more than 10,000 dialogues over the past 15 years. Each 90-minute session is lead by a trained facilitator. Many of the principles used in those conversations can just as easily apply around the dinner table or in any other impromptu situation.

The key, Mulvey said., is having a neutral third party to facilitate the discussion.

“Fundamentally, you need to be able to take all sides,” she said. “So you have to see that what your mom is thinking and saying and what your brother is thinking and saying, both have a core of truth to them.”

In addition to conducting dialogues among Penn State students, World in Conversation student facilitators have held virtual dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians and Afghan civilians and NATO cadets around the world.

In those situations, a dialogue is a first step toward finding common ground — which is an essential part of any democracy.

“Our colleagues in Afghanistan tell us that these dialogues are literally life and death for them,” Mulvey said. “When I see people in conversation, I feel hopeful about the possibilities, but you know it really requires a culture shift to make conversation important.”

Hear the full interview at or by subscribing through iTunes or Spotify. For more information on the World in Conversation, visit

Public Mapping Project Wins 2018 Brown Democracy Medal

Initiative allows citizens to draw their own congressional maps

Apr 17, 2018

This article originally appeared on Penn State News.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As conversations about how to stop partisan gerrymandering continue around the country, the work being done by this year’s Brown Democracy Medal winner could not be more timely or more relevant.

The McCourtney Institute for Democracy will award the 2018 Brown Democracy Medal to the Public Mapping Project, an initiative led by Micah Altman, director of research and head of the program on information science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Michael McDonald, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. 

The Public Mapping Project has developed District Builder, an open-source software redistricting application designed to give the public transparent, accessible and easy-to-use online mapping tools. The goal is for all citizens to have access to the same information that legislators use when drawing congressional maps — and use that data to create maps of their own.

“The technological innovation of online redistricting software and especially open-source system provided ordinary people unprecedented access to the tools and data to create legal districts,” Altman and McDonald wrote in their award-winning submission. “This enables what might otherwise be a static quantification of representation to be embedded in a living, democratic, transparent and participative process.”

McCourtney Institute Director Michael Berkman said the Public Mapping Project plays an important role in helping Americans understand redistricting and advocate for a fairer process moving forward.

“This transparency and involvement is the type of democratic engagement and innovation the Brown medal was designed to recognize,” Berkman said.

Draw the Lines PA, a nonpartisan organization that aims to “fix the bug in the operating system of democracy” in Pennsylvania, is using District Builder in its outreach efforts across the state. David Thornburgh of Draw the Lines PA explained how the Public Mapping project has impacted the organization.

“We are using District Builder as a critical building block for this effort. It gives Pennsylvanians in schools, colleges, community groups, faith congregations, and retirement communities the chance to make their voices heard,” Thornburgh wrote in a reference letter. “District Builder and Draw the Lines give the power of data and technology to the real bosses of democracy: current and future voters.”

The McCourtney Institute awards the Brown Democracy Medal annually to honor the best work being done to advance democracy in the United States and internationally. As part of the award, Altman and McDonald will present a public lecture at University Park this November and record an episode of the Institute's Democracy Works podcast.

The award is named for Larry and Lynne Brown. Lynne Brown graduated from Penn State in 1972 with a degree in education. Larry Brown is a 1971 history graduate and currently chairs the McCourtney Institute’s Board of Visitors.

For more information about the Public Mapping Project, visit

McCourtney Institute launches Democracy Works podcast

Mar 29, 2018

This article originally appeared on Penn State News.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Building and sustaining a democracy is hard work. It requires people from all walks of life to come together to build something greater than the sum of its parts.

Sound familiar? It’s happened throughout Pennsylvania’s history as manufacturers at iron and steel works built everything from ships to locomotives. The Democracy Works podcast, a new initiative from the McCourtney Institute for Democracy, will explore the hard work being done to power democracy.

“The idea of calling ourselves Democracy Works is to reinforce this notion that democracy is a big enterprise,” said McCourtney Institute Managing Director Chris Beem. “It doesn't happen simply or easily or without the attention of many individuals who are devoting a lot of effort to making things work the way they're supposed to.”

Each Democracy Works episode will explore a different democracy-related topic through a combination of interviews and analysis. The goal is to help listeners expand the idea of what democracy means through those conversations.

“We want to identify people who are doing interesting and important work in democracy and also help our listeners shift away from the idea that democracy is only about getting out and voting every other year,” said McCourtney Institute Director Michael Berkman.

The first episode examines the role of protest in a democracy and specifically how athletes fit into those protests. It features an interview with Abe Khan, assistant professor of African American studies and communication arts and sciences. Khan studies modern-day athlete protestors like Colin Kaepernick and historical figures like Muhammad Ali and the 1968 Olympics Black Power movement.

New episodes will be released weekly. Upcoming topics include:

  • Congressional investigations with Doug Kriner, professor of political science

  • The free press and nonprofit journalism with Halle Stockton, managing editor of PublicSource

  • Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania with Chris Satullo of Fair Districts PA

  • Democratic erosion with “How Democracies Die” author Daniel Ziblatt

Subscribe to Democracy Works in iTunes or listen at The podcast is produced by the McCourtney Institute and recorded at WPSU Penn State.

Burke lecture to examine relationship between individuals and society April 10

Mar 29, 2018

This article was originally posted on Penn State News.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Robert Asen, professor of rhetoric, politics and culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will deliver the Penn State Center for Democratic Deliberation’s annual Kenneth Burke Memorial Lecture at 4 p.m. April 10 in 100 Life Sciences Building at University Park.

The lecture, titled “Lives Lived Together: How John Dewey and Milton Friedman Imagined Human Relationships and Why this Matters for Contemporary Public Engagement,” will examine how interpersonal relationships impact public discourse, drawing from Dewey and Friedman’s opposing viewpoints on how individuals should interact with society at large.

According to Asen, Friedman argued that the individual was the basis of society and did not believe that the collective “we” could effectively address public issues. Conversely, Dewey believed that the relationship between an individual and his or her community formed the basis of society.

Asen’s research explores the democratic possibilities of rhetorical practice, both to build communities and divide them. Center for Democratic Deliberation Director Brad Vivian said the impact of that work extends far beyond academia.

“Robert Asen is a distinguished researcher and teacher who examines how we debate public policies in the contemporary U.S.,” Vivian said. “He also examines what those debates tell us about the social and political uses of rhetoric in the public sphere. His on-campus lecture will examine contrasting ideas about human relationships as the basis of society and the insights that those ideas provide into the state of contemporary public affairs.”

The Center for Democratic Deliberation is a center of excellence within the the McCourtney Institute for Democracy in the College of the Liberal Arts. The McCourtney Institute promotes rigorous scholarship and practical innovations to advance the democratic process in the United States and abroad.

Leading by example: Welch creates graduate scholarship in McCourtney Institute

Mar 23, 2018

This article was originally published on Penn State News.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — “It is not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself,” Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote.

Susan Welch, professor and dean of the Penn State College of the Liberal Arts, is a longtime admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt and someone who epitomizes the “leadership by example” approach represented by that quotation from one of the most important American women of the 20th century. It should come as no surprise, then, that Welch decided to name a graduate fellowship she recently created after Roosevelt.

Throughout her tenure as dean, Welch has worked tirelessly on solidifying the college’s status as one of the premier public liberal arts institutions in the world. One particular area of emphasis in that quest has been graduate education, where the college continuously seeks to increase its availability of scholarships, fellowships, and other financial resources that will bring the leading applicants to liberal arts graduate programs to Penn State.

In a gesture befitting her style of leading by example — and one that allows the college to take another step toward becoming a “first-choice” institution among the nation’s top liberal arts graduate students — Welch recently made a $125,000 gift to create the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Graduate Scholarship in the McCourtney Institute for Democracy.  As part of the "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence" campaign, her gift will be matched dollar for dollar by the University’s Graduate Scholarship Matching Program — thereby increasing the endowment to $250,000. The Graduate Scholarship Matching Program will continue until June 30, 2018, or until available matching funds have been expended.

“Susan’s gift to establish this graduate scholarship is a fitting encapsulation of her long and successful tenure as dean of the College of the Liberal Arts,” said Penn State Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Rich Bundy. “This gift reflects her own academic interests; it reinforces her emphasis on the importance of graduate education in the liberal arts; and it demonstrates personal commitment and leadership that is truly aspirational. Penn State could not be more grateful for this gift, which represents yet another legacy of one of our most storied academic leaders.”

The endowment will support students who are enrolled or planning to enroll in one of the College of the Liberal Arts’ graduate programs and are actively involved with the college’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy. Established in 2014, the McCourtney Institute promotes rigorous scholarship and practical innovations to advance the democratic process in the United States and abroad. The institute pursues this mission independently and by supporting the work of the Center for Democratic Deliberation and the Center for American Political Responsiveness.

In addition to being dean of the college, Welch is one of the leading scholars of political science. Her research focuses on American politics, particularly urban, ethnic and women’s politics. Welch’s current research interests include U.S. women’s legislative representation and the political science of the Holocaust. She has authored more than 170 scholarly articles, seven monographs, and three textbooks, and she has been recognized as one of the most cited political scientists of her generation.

“I am so pleased that the University is offering a generous match for gifts supporting graduate education,” Welch said. “This provides a real lift to our efforts to provide funding to attract the top students to our graduate programs. I am delighted with the progress of our McCourtney Institute and wanted to direct my gift to help facilitate its work.”

Gifts from Penn State's alumni and friends have been essential to the success of the University's historic land-grant mission to serve the public good. To fulfill that mission for a new era of rapid change and global connections, the University has begun "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a fast-paced campaign focused on the three key imperatives of a public university: Private support will keep the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more, visit

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