“Science” as a concept has suffered greatly during the past few years, under pressure from both misunderstanding and misinformation. COVID-19 has enhanced the perception of many people that science is in disarray, changing its story almost daily, with many believing it shouldn’t ever be changing its story. How can you trust a moving target that assures you of something one day only to tell you something different the next?
All of this misses the point of what science is seeking to accomplish, and faulty views of the scientific enterprise are key feeders for the disinformation industry. For people seeking to be information literate, a clear understanding of the scientific method and of scientists themselves is essential.
What is science?
This may seem a bit off-the-wall, but I think the intent of science is well-captured in this statement from the 2022 movie, The Adam Project: “Time travel exists: You just don’t know it yet.” You might say that asserting that time travel exists is the essence of misinformation, because the evidence is not there. Yet, time travel has been modeled in the field of quantum physics despite the fact that it hasn’t yet been demonstrated in real life. What I like about this movie quotation is the way it points out that science directs itself at the future on the basis of the present. It believes it will find things yet unseen.
You can say whatever you want about something like time travel. But it is only when you “know” it exists that you have anything like certainty. That’s what science is about— providing the evidence to declare something imagined or hypothesized as real.
Ah, evidence. That’s the key to it all. The scientific definition of evidence is quite different from the lay-level version: “I did the research, and this is what I found.” You see, science is elitist, like one of those old-fashioned “gentlemen’s clubs” that kept the riff-raff out. While science is neither misogynistic nor snooty, it is elite. If you want to join the club, you have to pay your dues (education and research output) before you are accepted. Science may use amateurs in data gathering (birdwatchers, weather observers, etc.), but amateurs do not belong in the scientific guild.
Why the elitism? Simply because assertion of evidence has to follow the rules of the scientific method and the particular procedures required to validate the evidence found. That is something that can only be done by those who have the expertise to make their findings acceptable to the rest of the scientific community. In the sciences, the scholarly conversation is, in no small part, a scholarly scrutiny of the work that fellow scientists do. Science thus becomes self-correcting. In pursuit of good science, organizations such as Sigma Xi provide codes of conduct to govern the high-quality, ethical pursuit of research (sigmaxi.org/about/organization/code-of-ethics).
Any time there is elitism, there are those who make accusations of “old-boy networks” and secretive vested interests. How can you trust anything that is self-correcting so that errors and lapses are rooted out by the very people who are doing the research? This is a dilemma and is at the heart of suspicion of science. “What are you people doing in there?” is a valid question to ask. When articles are retracted due to falsification of findings or bad method (retractionwatch.com), can we do anything but assume that science is corrupt? (This, of course, misses the point that it is the scientific academy that vigorously seeks out and exposes such ethical and methodological breaches.)
The answer comes from the scientific methodologies that guide experimentation and assertion of evidence in support of hypotheses. As a recognized scientist, you have to follow the rules, or your research production will be rejected by the guild. True, some scientists are outliers, trying out new methods. But they have a long, hard road to travel before gaining the acceptance of their fellow scientists, often struggling for years until their methods and findings are viewed as meeting the criteria for genuine science.
Then there are the baffling (to much of the public) shifts from what science once asserted to what it is asserting now. Aren’t we supposed to trust in the “assured results of science” rather than having to cope with changes? This confusion results from another misunderstanding of science: that every finding becomes a part of the established record, like steps in a staircase that leads to the truth. To believe that science can’t change, or even cast aside earlier assertions, is a false view of science.
Things change. The staircase may well collapse, so scientists might have to build a new one because the old one has been found rotten. This is distressing. To see something once believed turn to dust in the face of new evidence creates the very recipe for distrust. But it is crucial to know that science is not the absolute pronouncements of experts who know what is true. Science is a struggle to know.
The goal of science
Many columns ago, I gave a statement about scholarship which I will now adapt to cover the scientific enterprise: “Science is all about a profound discontent, about a quest to discover more, about a burning desire to solve society’s problems and make a better world.” It is not the goal of science to champion the status quo, even though a body of evidence can give a measure of reliability to scientific assertions. The goal of science is ever to explore new territory.
This means that genuine scientific findings are held loosely. Scientists don’t focus much on proof and truth. They stress levels of probability or growing consensus based on multiple studies. This is concerning for many members of the public, even many students, who want scientists to arrive at unassailable facts that can form a bedrock. Such facts are out there, laws about gravity and so on. But they are not where science is working. Science lives on the frontier.
To blame science for changing its beliefs based on new evidence is to miss the point that science never promised you that it had finally and irrevocably arrived at the truth. Trusting the science is possible, but when the science changes its assertions, those who trusted can’t blame scientists for changing their minds. Such a change is not a sign of incompetence but of science simply achieving its goal to know more and to seek better answers.
Flies in the ointment
There are many reasons these days why science is so often suspect. First, as we have seen, if we expect science to give absolute and final answers, we are bound to be disappointed and suspicious. Second, today’s technological messaging too often sends scientific findings out into the world before they have been properly peer-reviewed. Here, I think science can bear some blame. The eagerness of scientists to trumpet accomplishments means that they do have a tendency to get the news out there while it is still half-baked. The growth of preprint websites doesn’t help.
Third, we have social media, which started as a grand Utopian dream and has become a cesspool of misinformation. Even when scientific findings are sound (think COVID research or climate change), there are multiple voices that challenge the science as unfounded, fraught with vested issues, or riddled with incompetence. It doesn’t help when science does its job by shifting its claims as new evidence comes in. Social media loves it when that happens.
Fourth, we don’t have nearly enough replication research happening. Replication allows scientists to check out scientific findings by essentially repeating the experiment. Unfortunately, replication is not as exciting (or useful for tenure) as pioneering research is, and it is less likely to get funding. Without replication, flaws in pioneering studies can go unchallenged for years, resulting in a challenge to scientific certainty.
A path to trusting the science
As a first step, we need to get away from our belief in the power of crowdsourcing. It is not a reality that, if enough people believe something, it is true. Nor can hosts of ordinary citizens prove as reliable as one well-trained and highly experienced scientist. Too many of us think we are as good as the experts, or that websites and social media posts of non-scientists are just as believable as the findings of scientists. The American Society of University Professors wrote in 2019: “Without expert knowledge, we lose our ability to know the past, to shape the future, and to acknowledge the differences and similarities we share as human beings” (aaup.org/report/defense-knowledge-and-higher-education).
Then, we need to grasp what science can and cannot do. Having a notion that science discovers facts that remain factual forever is to set yourself up for disappointment. Science’s intention is to enlist evidence to produce findings that support hypotheses. Any time we think that changed scientific assertions are signs that scientists are incompetent, we are doing a disservice to science itself.
Further, we need to value expertise, something that I have asserted many times in my published work. Scientists pay their dues in education and experience before they ever gain acceptance in their elitist guilds. This is a good thing. Science protects itself, not to become an old-boys network, but to protect the proper use of method to produce findings that can be trusted.
Finally, we need to get past the idea that science serves its own vested interests so that scientists’ work is beset by bias. While there is certainly some of that, most scientists are deliberate about letting the evidence speak for itself. Science is not riddled with private agendas nor with motivation to deceive us for personal or corporate gain.
What do we tell our students?
I talked to a prospective student who reflected much of current thinking today when he told me that modern science is corrupt and no one should trust it. That grieves me as it grieves the many scientists I know. They are sincere people on a quest, using the best methods their expertise can enlist to advance the world’s knowledge. Here is what I tell students:
1. Science is about the quest, about following the evidence wherever it goes. This means that any study or experiment has the potential to overthrow existing beliefs. When science, done well, challenges existing assumptions, this is not a sign of scientific failure, as in, “First they said that and now they say this.” It’s the very nature of science to challenge what we once claimed.
2. You are not an expert. Sorry.
3. While healthy critical thinking about the assertions of scientists can be beneficial, ultimately we are going to have to give a good measure of trust to people who know more than we do about crucial knowledge in society.
4. Trusting the science means that we must also be prepared for the science to take us into new territory and new beliefs. We must understand that science looks to the future. Maybe time travel is real, and we just don’t know it yet. This seems like a precarious spot to be in, but trusting the science means trusting the methods that take us to new places.
A hope for a better understanding
Scientists who are on the quest are working with us, not against us. The confusion of social media and the profound doubts of skeptics aside, science is a bulwark against ignorance and faulty thinking. We could focus on real abuses that exist in the scientific world, but science is the best we have.
First, we need to grasp that science is in flux. While there is a lot of bedrock, there is also quicksand and lots of rivers that take researchers to new places. Trusting the science does not mean that we refuse to hear about new findings that contradict earlier ones. Second, we need to see the supreme value of expertise to navigate a complex world. Third, we need to trust the scientists, most of whom are doing valiant work to make sense of our world, without bias or vested interests.
Trust the science.