Many of us accept that science is a reliable guide to what we should believe – but not all of us do.
Distrust of science has led to skepticism around several important issues, from climate change denial to vaccine hesitancy during the COVID pandemic. And while most of us are inclined to dismiss such skepticism as unwarranted, it begs the question: why should we trust science?
As a philosopher specializing in the philosophy of science, I am particularly intrigued by this question. It turns out that delving into the works of great thinkers can help provide an answer.
A thought that might first come to mind is that we should trust scientists because what they say is true.
But there are problems with this. One is the question of whether what a scientist says is, in fact, the truth. Skeptics will point out that scientists are only human and remain prone to making mistakes.
Also, if we look at the history of science, we find that what scientists believed in the past has often turned out later to be wrong. And it suggests that what scientists think today may one day turn out to be wrong. After all, there have been times in history when people thought mercury could treat syphilis, and the bumps on a person’s skull could reveal their character traits.
Another tempting suggestion as to why we should trust science is that it is based on “facts and logic”.
This may be true, but unfortunately it is of limited help in persuading someone who is inclined to reject what scientists say. Both parties to a dispute will claim that they have the facts on their side; he is not unknown for climate change denarii say that global warming is just a “theory”.
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Popper and the scientific method
An influential answer to the question of why we should trust scientists is that they use the scientific method. This, of course, begs the question: what is the scientific method?
For Poppers, science proceeds by what he calls “conjectures and refutations”. Scientists are faced with a question and offer a possible answer. This answer is guesswork in the sense that, at least initially, it’s unclear whether it’s good or bad.
Popper says scientists then do their best to disprove that conjecture or prove it wrong. Generally, it is refuted, rejected and replaced by a better one. This too will then be tested, and eventually replaced with an even better one. This is how science progresses.
Sometimes this process can be incredibly slow. Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves over 100 years ago as part of his general theory of relativity. But it wasn’t until 2015 that scientists were able to observe them.
For Popper, at the heart of the scientific method is the attempt to disprove or disprove theories, the so-called “falsification principle”. If scientists have been unable to disprove a theory over an extended period of time, despite their best efforts, then, in Popper’s terminology, the theory has been “substantiated”.
This suggests a possible answer to the question of why we should trust what scientists tell us. This is because, despite their best efforts, they have not been able to refute the idea that they tell us is true.
Recently, an answer to the question was formulated in more detail in a book by science historian Naomi Oreskes. Oreskes acknowledges the importance Popper places on the role of attempting to refute a theory, but also emphasizes the social and consensus element of scientific practice.
For Oreskes, we have reason to trust science because, or to the extent that, there is consensus within the (relevant) scientific community that a particular claim is true – in which that same scientific community did its best to refute it and failed. .
Here is a brief overview of what a scientific idea typically goes through before a consensus emerges and it is correct.
A scientist can give a paper about an idea to colleagues, who then discuss it. One of the purposes of this discussion will be to find something wrong. If the paper passes the test, the scientist can write a peer-reviewed paper on the same idea. If the referees think it has enough merit, it will be released.
Others can then subject the idea to experimental testing. If it adopts enough of them, a consensus can emerge that it is correct.
A good example of a theory undergoing this transition is the theory of global warming and human impact on it. It had been suggested as early as 1896 that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere could lead to global warming.
In the early 20th century, another theory emerged that not only was this happening, but the carbon dioxide released by human activities (namely the burning of fossil fuels) could be accelerating global warming. He gained some support at the time, but most scientists remained not convinced.
However, throughout the second half of the 20th century and what has happened so far of the 21st, the theory of human-caused climate change has so successfully passed the current tests that a meta -recent study revealed that more than 99% of the scientific community concerned accept his reality. It may have started as a mere hypothesis, successfully passed tests for over a hundred years, and has now gained near universal acceptance.
The bottom line
This does not necessarily mean that we must wholeheartedly accept everything scientists say. There is of course a difference between a single scientist or a small group saying something and a consensus within the scientific community that something is true.
And, of course, for various reasons – some practical, some financial, some – scientists may not have done their best to disprove an idea. And even if scientists have repeatedly tried and failed to disprove a given theory, the history of science suggests that at some point in the future it may still be proven wrong when new evidence comes to light. revealed.
So when should we trust science? The view that seems to emerge from Popper, Oreskes and others in the field is that we have good, but fallible, reason to trust what scientists say when, despite their best efforts to disprove an idea, there remains a consensus that it is true. .
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