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Why trust science?

Why trust science?

Nick Spencer reviews Naomi Oreskes’ boldly–title book and finds an answer that resonates with an age–old religious problem. 02/04/2022

It feels dangerous even to ask the question. When anti–vaxxers are questioning the effectiveness of medical science, climate change deniers the accuracy of climate science, and young–earth creationists the validity of evolution and geology, the risks of asking why we should trust science at all seem, at first, to outweigh the benefits of doing so.

And yet, if science genuinely is the practice of sustained, structured scepticism that it claims to be, ask it we must. To refuse to turn a distrusting eye on its own activities and conclusions would be not only to betray science’s own core values, but to leave the territory to those whose motives for questioning science are themselves questionable.

Naomi Oreskes is Professor of the History of Science at Harvard and in an earlier book, Merchants of Doubt, she detailed how a number of unholy alliances between industry, politics and science had sown doubt over the links between carbon emissions and climate change, smoking and lung cancer, coal smoke and acid rain, and CFCs and ozone depletion. These groups sold doubt and they sold it well. If those who are committed to good and potentially disruptive science, don’t ask whether we should trust science, then those who aren’t, will.

Moreover, and more disturbingly, science is not always trustworthy, and there are innumerable examples from the past to prove it. One need not go to the absurdities of phrenology or the horrors of eugenics to show this (though both were considered serious and established disciplines in their own time). In her subsequent book, Why Trust Science?, Oreskes offers many other examples to make the point.

Limited Energy Theory, from the late nineteenth century, argued the women were not suited to higher education on the grounds that it would adversely affect their fertility. Building on the ideas of thermodynamics, medics argued that the female of the species had only a limited supply of physical energy, much of which was needed for reproduction. Higher education would shrivel their ovaries and uteri. The medics who propounded the theory were all men.

Continental Drift, the idea that the earth’s continents had drifted over its surface in geological history, was well established in Europe by the end of the nineteenth century, but American geologists had methodological objections to it. The theory, they argued, was insufficiently inductive: too much theory, not enough observation. By why was this an issue in America and not in Europe? According to Oreskes: “American geologists…explicitly linked their inductive methodology to American democracy and culture… deduction was consistent with autocratic European ways of thinking and acting… [the Americans] methodological preferences were grounded in their political ideas.” There are other examples. The point is that sometimes science has been trusted when it has been wrong and distrusted when it has been right – and for reasons that had only a patina of scientific justification to them.

Sure, science’s defenders reply at this point. But such theories have now been shown to be wrong, or right. So science does work, after all. But how do we know, the sceptics reply. How do we know which of today’s theories will stand the test of time, and which will be disproved one day. And if we don’t know, why should we trust any of it now?

Oreskes answer is fascinating, learned and perhaps a little surprising. Once upon a time the answer to this question was respectability. “The results of scientific investigations were trustworthy to the extent that the people who undertook them were.” In the later nineteenth century, this idea withered on the vine, to be replaced by method. Science was trustworthy because of its commitment to a reliable method.

The answer remains a convincing and widely repeated one today. Method is necessary, although not necessarily sufficient. Through the twentieth century, philosophers and sociologists began to pick holes in it. Was there such a thing the scientific method? Did scientists actually follow their method(s)? What guaranteed that that method arrived at the truth? Popular answers – the processes of science enabled theories to be verified, or they enabled theories to be falsified, or they enabled things to be predicted – were each suggested and then shown wanting. Pierre Duhem and W.V.O. Quine showed that theories were commonly under–determined by the evidence available. Thomas Kuhn showed that mounting levels of observation did not necessarily change theories as predicted. Paul Feyerabend argued that there was no scientific ‘method’ at all.

Practising scientists often dismissed such arguments as angels on pins. Science was transparently working. That was enough. But the problem of trust doesn’t go away, and when groups scatter distrust where they can, it remains urgent.

Oreskes’ answer builds on feminist critiques of science. These are easily dismissed, at least in some quarters, and sometimes deservedly so. (When one feminist philosopher of science accused Newton’s Principia Mathematica of being a “rape manual” you want to hold you head in your hands). The underlying point, however, is a valid and important one. “It is not so much that science corrects itself, but that scientists correct each other.” And, as the growing body of sociology of science shows, when scientists are too homogenous, too similar, too close to outside interests, or too vested in certain ideologies, their ability and inclination to correct one another is blunted. “Objectivity [emerges] as a function of community practices rather than as an attitude of individual researchers.” (52)

I have heard certain some scientists sneer at this, along the lines that there are more Asian women working in physics than ever before, and the laws of physics have not notably changed. It’s a catty but not an unreasonable point, and it may be that the importance of diversity among scientists matters more for some disciplines – particularly those closer to the questions of human nature and society – than for others. Nevertheless, it is undeniable and surely no accident that “when scientists were almost exclusively white men, they developed theories about women and African Americans that were at best incomplete and at times pernicious.” As the disciplines of psychology, sociology, and anthropology flourish, maintaining diversity among scholars seems eminently sensible.

It is important to note that none of this amounts to a wholesale rejection of scientific method, so much as a question mark over its sufficiency. In her conclusion, Oreskes outlines five “themes” that combine to produce scientific knowledge. One of them is method (another is evidence).

But what is striking is that the other three are consensus, values and humility, ‘themes’ that direct the question away from the narrow confines of what most people consider to be science, and towards the wider social and ethical context in which science takes place. And what it particularly striking here – at least what particularly strikes me – is just how closely this parallels longstanding discussions in hermeneutics, the discipline of studying texts, especially authoritative ones.

The question of who has the right to interpret holy texts is a very old one. Our answer today – anyone – was hardly self–evident in the past. Between 1401 and the late 1530s, even owning a vernacular Bible in England could send you to the stake. Reading and interpreting the text was a highly–charged, highly–political and strictly–limited exercise.

Our interpretative generosity is so much better today, although it hardly gets us off the hook of the bigger question, whose interpretation of holy texts should we trust? This is not theory. When Vladimir Putin appropriates Jesus’s words from John’s gospel, “there is no greater love than if someone gave his soul for his friends”, as a justification for his murderous war in Ukraine, the need to interpret authoritative scripture rightly is vital. If you want to say that hie interpretation is mistaken, you need to be able to say why your interpretation is trustworthy. The question is as familiar, and as intractable, as ‘why trust science?’ But the commonly proposed answers are strangely similar.

Yes, the reader in question should be educated, learned, and informed, as should the scientists. But education alone is not enough. We need a community of readers at work, bringing to bear on the text their various background and experiences. This is not just a question of comfortable, rich, white, Western, Protestant (or Orthodox) men who have finally discerned what Jesus actually meant. Readers, like scientists, must be characterised by integrity, patience, diligence, responsiveness, etc. Their work should be marked by humility, a refusal to foreclose on answers, an openness to new ideas, a reluctance to claim that you have somehow finally fathomed the mind of God. But above all, the community should be varied, so that just as scientists correct each other to make better science, so readers correct each to make better interpretation. It’s one of the strange ways in which science and religion end up having more in common than we often think.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos

Why Trust Science? by Naomi Oreskes is published by Princeton

Naomi Oreskes is a guest on the next series of Reading our Times


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Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently ‘The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable’ (Bloomsbury, 2017), ‘The Evolution of the West’ (SPCK, 2016) and ‘Atheists: The Origin of the Species’ (Bloomsbury, 2014).

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Posted 1 April 2022

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