04 July 2014

Why people can trust science

The point of this blog is to advocate for preferred alternatives to religion and theism.  Religious faith is often described as a "way of knowing."  Clearly, though, as ways go, religious faith isn't any good at all.  While it's important to clarify what "knowing" is, I don't want to write about that today. Instead, I want to write about how science is a trustworthy - more trustworthy that religion - as a "way to know" stuff.

Warning: this is a rather long and rambling post.  Some of the points I'll raise here merit much more attention than they'll get here. Eventually, I'll come back to them in future posts, but I wanted to "get them down on paper" in a single place.

My motivation for this post is a 20 minute TED talk by Naomi Oreskes on why people should trust scientists.  While I think her general message is a good one, I don't think she really got it right - indeed, I think she actually got some things wrong - but largely because she has assumed a naivety of her audience that actually does more harm than good by making science out to be simpler than it is.

Here's some of the mistakes that she, and possibly the scientists from which she gets her information, make.

At 1:01, Oreskes says that scientists say that they don't deal in belief, because belief is the domain of faith.  This only depends on how one defines the terms "belief" and "faith."  She excludes all the philosophers and scientists who have produced work over centuries arguing against this stance. Why didn't she choose definitions that make more sense and stand on firmer rational ground?

At 1:20, she invokes Pascal's Wager, without bothering to even mention any of the counter-arguments to the Wager. This gives the sense that it still holds weight as an argument in favour of theism, which is not the case.

At 1:55, she claims that most science is a "leap of faith" for most people (i.e., non-scientists). Again, this is naive, and could almost be treated as an argument from popularity: a leap of faith is necessary because so many people think it's necessary.  Indeed, she claims that scientists invoke a leap of faith when they believe what other scientists outside their specialty claim. This could be the case only if scientists in two different fields only considered the specific domain knowledge in those two fields.  But it isn't the case, because there is a great deal of procedural and methodological knowledge that is common to all of science.

Indeed, beyond that, she also ignored the overall interconnectedness of scientific knowledge. While she is quite correct to say that a chemist would likely not be able to judge the science of evolutionary biology, there is common ground between them in that biology is a kind of chemistry, and evolution can be tracked back to the consequences for large complex chemical entities (organisms) given certain fundamental chemical properties (the chemistry that occurs as DNA is processed).  The same can be said of every other element of scientific knowledge.

At 2:45, Oreskes claims that the reason most of "us" (the public) believe scientific claims is because of the "scientific method."  But her description of the scientific method - in its best, modern form - is also very naive.  Basically, she's saying: the public is ignorant of how science works, but that's okay - we can come up with an excuse for that ignorance that still results in people "believing" scientific claims.

At 4:30, she says, "...academics like to make things complicated...."  Yeah, right. That attempt at endearing herself to non-academics is just insulting to us academics.  How about saying instead, academics like to be precise?  Not as funny, but more accurate.

At 4:40, she explains that what scientists are after are "laws" and completely ignores "theory." Again, this kind of superficiality does science no favours at all.

At 5:12, she claims that the scientific method is wrong.  Well, sure, if you accept it to be the over-simplified, naive version that she peddles.  She completely ignores the advances in the processes and techniques of science in the last 50 years - which have been at least as significant as the increase in domain knowledge during that time.  Still, she claims that the scientific method is wrong for three reasons.

The first reason is that the scientific method falls prey to the fallacy of confirming the consequent. This is bollocks.  All scientific "knowledge" is probabilistic; any sensible scientist will agree with that. It's just that the odds of any bit of scientific knowledge being false are so vanishingly small that there's no reason to think otherwise. She is applying standards of truth here that only apply in the fields of math and logic.  And that is a huge mistake.  All scientific knowledge is contingent on the context in which it was established.  Her example of the ptolemaic universe is a classic example. The ptolemaic universe was a perfectly acceptable piece of scientific knowledge in the context of its development and use, and only in that context.  That is, given what they knew at the time, Ptolemy's theory was perfectly fine.  And it still is fine today - so long as you restrict yourself to only the information that was available in Ptolemy's day.  In exactly the same way, Newtonian mechanics is not "wrong" in light of Relativity; it is just a more limited version Relativity that still works beautifully for any typical human-scale circumstance - in particular, those where all velocities are very much less than that of light.

The second problem, she says, is that of auxiliary hypotheses.  This is not a problem of science - it's a problem of existence!  Even philosophy has its equivalent - every statement a philosopher makes is weighed down with all manner of assumptions and conditions.  Yet she argues that her position - based on philosophy that is flawed in exactly the same way - is correct?  Talk about pots calling kettles black!  Paradox!  Her argument against believing scientific claims is based on the same fault that she attributes to science.

The third problem is that, she claims, "A lot of science doesn't fit the standard model."  By this, she seems to mean that science isn't deductive, it's inductive.  Well, yeah!  (Duh!)  Of course it's inductive.  That's why replication and validation is such a key component of science.

At 13:45, Oreskes gets into the whole notion of "scientific consensus," another concept that she botches completely with her superficial presentation of the matter.  While she does correctly point to evidentialism as a core element of science, she glosses over the differences between (a) what scientific consensus is and how scientists reach it, and (b) what non-scientific consensus is and how non-scientists reach it.  Scientific consensus isn't based on opinion; it's based on evidence and careful, rigorous argumentation.  It's a consensus of extremely precisely stated and independently derived externalities, not subjective feelings and vague opinions often resulting from simple groupthink.

Say we consider the board of directors of some organization.  They may reach a consensus on which of several alternative courses of actions based on their relative merits, and not on whether one course of action is objectively "correct" and another "incorrect."

Science, on the other hand, is exactly about finding "correct" and "incorrect" statements.  Of course, this is done in a context of imperfect knowledge, information, and reasoning - so skepticism is quite necessary.  But that doesn't prevent one from working toward a goal of actual "correctness."

At 16:20, she claims that many experts have reached the conclusion that science is based on an appeal to authority.  This too is bollocks, because the authority, in this case, is the community of scientists.  No, no, no.  To say it is an appeal to authority implies that one must not question the authority.  But what is science if it isn't the pursuit of questioning everything?  Scientists question their own work all the time!  If scientists truly were authorities, then they wouldn't need to question themselves.

There's nothing fundamental that stops one from going through all the literature and re-doing all the work necessary to find out for themselves if any scientist's work is correct.  There are pragmatic limitations - most of us lack the time and resources to do that.  But that's got nothing to do with any essential barrier to questioning scientific knowledge.

Finally, while she alluded somewhat to the so-called "Problem of Science," she didn't really connect the dots between modern technology and its scientific underpinnings.  The Problem of Science is only a problem for (some) philosophers, and it amounts to, I think, envy for the raving success that science has had in explaining how the universe works - something philosophy has been unable to do despite being much older.  The Problem of Science is that science is successful, but there is, philosophically, no particular reason for it to be so.

I will let the philosophers argue about that; I quite frankly don't care. The point is that all our modern technology works because we understand their scientific underpinnings, which in turn lets us predict physical phenomena that let us build our gadgets.  So if you want proof that we can trust scientists, then one need only consider the computer on which you are reading this.

One last pet peeve of mine is the conflation of trust in scientists as opposed to trust in science. One can trust in the latter without necessarily trusting all the members of the former.  No matter what some people think, science is not as science does.  Science is a rule-book, a pattern, a methodology - whatever you want to call it.  Scientists who "do" science may wander from the accepted conventions, and may do so with good reason or bad.  But in the end, the foundational principles of science must be satisfied by the work, which usually means that even a result arising from the oddest departure from scientific convention must be brought back and validated against known and reliable standards before it becomes accepted scientific knowledge.  (I've written more about the differences between science, the sciences, and scientists, elsewhere.)

It comes down to this: It's not a question of trusting scientists, it's a question of trusting the body of knowledge that scientists have established over the centuries and that you all are using all the frickin' time! Going to get your car fixed?  Thank science.  Going to the dentist to have a cavity filled? Thank science.  Reading this on your computer? Thank science. Taking meds to control your cholesterol? Thank science.

The biggest fallacies that are held by the public and that need to be addressed as soon as possible are:

  • Science is all knowledge.  No it's not.  Some of it might be called knowledge for all practical purposes, but scientific knowledge is really a belief system that has behind the most cogent, coherent, and rational evidentiary structure ever constructed by humanity.
  • All scientific knowledge is true (or at least that's what the scientists would have one believe). No it's not.  And how do you define "true?"  In any case, it doesn't matter.  Some statements scientific knowledge is more robust than other statements.  And it's largely the fault of the popular press for misleading the citizenry about the status of so many items of scientific knowledge.  You want to lose your shit? Lose it over the crap that passes for 90% of all science journalism.
  • Scientists think they're gods.  No they don't.  And even if some do think that (and there are some), who cares?  We know they're just people, and any individual can make mistakes. Fortunately, the enterprise of science has all kinds of checks and balances built into it to make sure no mistakes go unchecked, eventually.  Scientists aren't arrogant, they just know what they're talking about.  The certainty with which they speak and write is largely drawn from the insanely deep understanding of their area of speciality.

Science is not only the absolute best way we've ever developed to understand, predict, and control our environment, it also represents a way of thinking (more important, I think, than just being a way of knowing) that will help anyone in any circumstance find the best possible course of action.  It gives us the means to understand why equality makes sense, how our actions affect others and the environment, and when to act.  Science - especially if you include the fundamental philosophical knowledge that underlies science - is our single best way to live a meaningful and safe life.

And it's a great way to replace god.

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