Can We Trust Science?

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Science is knowledge.

The practice of science is nothing more, and nothing less, than the earnest and thoughtful work of figuring things out, of trying to understanding, of learning how things work.

Scientists are people committed to this practice, or to a community of shared practice. They work together to understand. And understanding is a thing of immense power. If you understand why the car has stalled, for example, you can fix it. And if you know when the tide will ebb, you can escape the harbor.

Science, thought of this way, is plural. It has shared tools, to be sure, such as observation testing, the use of math and statistics. But science is as varied as the different phenomena that there are. The actual work of scientists in different fields — from protein crystallography to epidemiology to conservation biology to astrophysics — is splendidly varied.

Some scientists I know are concerned about the generally low-level of scientific knowledge in America today. And they are downright gob-smacked when they encounter, especially among politicians, people who challenge the value of science as a source of knowledge and, so, as having a role to play in policy deliberations. How can you decide what to do — how can you know where, when or how to intervene — if you don't understanding what's going on? Science is knowledge. Why would you reject the good faith effort to understand?

There is, however, a second meaning of the term "science." I am thinking of the industry of science and its institutions. Let's call this "Big Science." Big Science is not just simply knowledge or the good faith pursuit of knowledge. Big Science is not only the handmaiden of policy, ready to serve in an advisory role. Big Science is, itself, the product of policy decisions. After all, funders choose to support some areas of research and not others. Moreover, a lot of research is not entirely disinterested. For example, a good deal of science is done in the pursuit of profit (e.g. in the drugs industry).

I think we need to keep this in mind when we try to understand the widespread mistrust of science. I know many people, for example, who don't trust research funded by the tobacco industry, or by the pharmaceutical industry. These doubters are not anti-knowledge; they are not anti-science, in that sense. They question whether the science that is getting pushed is trustworthy, whether it is really the result of the good-faith pursuit of knowledge rather than the ambitious drive to secure patents, for example.

I know people who use homeopathic medicines. When I bring to their attention the fact that there is no good science supporting the effectiveness of such remedies, they respond with general anxiety that the drug testing industry is dominated by interested vested in the pharmaceutical industry. Again, it isn't that they challenge science; they mistrust Big Science. Big Science has somehow gotten a bad name. Again, this is what drives the anti-vaccine anxiety. While there is no doubt that there are "science doubters" who irrationally speak out against vaccines, outright ignorance is playing a bigger role, as well as a general lack of education on risks. I wonder whether behind the irrational doubt, ignorance and fear of vaccines, there isn't something — like a fundamental mistrust in the people in white coats — telling them it's OK. Perhaps the problem is less the belief in bogus science about vaccines and this harm or that — and more the doubt about the impartiality of those who insist that there are not any such links. Ditto for genetically modified foods.

Mistrust of Big Science seems to flourish at both extremes of our political community. I suspect that the mistrust that drives skepticism about GMO food, vaccines, and claims made on behalf of drug companies is the same mistrust of Big Science that leads some to dispute the claims of climate science, for example.

The issue isn't science. The issue is trust.

Now, I am an unabashed admirer of science. Science is knowledge. Knowledge is good. I celebrate the culture that makes it possible to educate people to do what scientists do.

And there is no doubt that science is of immense cultural value. Economic, military, commercial, medical. The U.S. is the power it is today in large measure thanks to its achievements in science and engineering since the middle of the last century.

So, how do we combat popular mistrust of science?

An obvious first step, it seems to me, is that science, or Big Science, would do well to own its past failings. There are ample examples of bad science, dangerous science. Race and gender have been allowed to play an insidious role in the history of medicine, even the very recent history, for example. From the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment to the use of black soldiers to test the effects of mustard gas. Or consider case of Walter Freeman, inventor and popularizer of the transorbital ("ice-pick") lobotomy as a treatment of mental illness; he travelled around the country performing more than 3,000 of these procedures. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1949.

And we know that claims made on behalf of drugs by their manufacturers must be viewed cautiously. The last few years have seen numerous scandals in science — from the Harvard psychologist who fabricated results to the growing appreciation that, at least in some regions of science, it has proved difficult to replicate findings.

And then there is the fact that there are simply open problems. The problem of consciousness, for example, is widely thought to be one of the major outstanding problems facing science. The problem of consciousness, obviously, is a problem for biology. So there are mysteries at the heart of even an established science. And as my colleagues Adam Frank and Marcelo Gleiser here at 13.7 have written, there are profound and unsettled questions about how to move forward and make progress in fundamental physics.

This is not a bad thing! God forbid there were no more open questions.

My point here is that we need to offer a clear-eyed view of the fact that science has a history: It is a human endeavor and it is not without blemishes.

But probably the best thing we can do to gain trust in science is just to do more science, to do it better, and to carry on. Science requires no apology. Science is not a special interest. Science is the honest pursuit of knowledge, after all. The alternative to science is ignorance.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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