I can’t help but notice the number of State Journal readers who claim not to trust science.
Their reasoning often involves a belief that science is unreliable because several scientific determinations once taken as fact have ultimately been proven incorrect. Many argue that since some scientific positions have been erroneous, all scientific positions are therefore dubious.
I will attempt to clarify misconceptions about how science actually works, and begin by saying that those who are suspicious of scientific conclusions are absolutely correct to be skeptical. In fact, science demands it, skepticism being integral to the scientific method.
Enlightenment science arose in the 17th century to free us from the mysticism and superstition that had kept our thoughts in bondage for 1,000 years, and it has blossomed into the most efficient methodology for explaining the physical world we live in. Based upon empiricism and deductive logic, the scientific method has advanced mankind farther and faster than any previous period in human history. And yet its record isn’t perfect.
For example, physicians were still bleeding patients only 100 years ago, biologists once believed that tomatoes were poisonous, and for decades astronomers thought Pluto was a planet. The fact is most hypothetical research ends up going nowhere because it is unable to pass the rigors of the scientific method — that being idea, observation, hypothesis, experimentation and conclusion. For a hypothesis to become scientific theory the results of its experiments must be reproducible 100% of the time, and it must also be falsifiable (logically possible to be contradicted by an observation).
If I release a ball from my hand, it will fall toward the gravitational center of the earth. If an object weighs less than the amount of liquid it displaces, the object must float. If the air pressure above an object is less than that below it, the object must rise. These examples are presented to us as scientific theory because it has never been shown that they can act any differently, and yet no scientist can ever guarantee that one day, perhaps under unknown conditions, the dropped ball will fall up instead of down.
There are two good reasons that science gives itself this "wiggle room" — causality, although an action has always yielded a uniform result in the past, we cannot be absolutely certain that it will continue to do so in the future, and fallibilism, we can never claim any conclusion to be an absolute certainty because our knowledge base is always changing.
Although the ball I drop has a 99.999% probability of falling downward I can never claim that this will always be the case, yet I must act under the assumption that it will fall until I am proven wrong. This ingrained uncertainty is how science provides a path for correcting itself when new evidence comes forth.
The issue with people like climate deniers and anti-vaxxers is the manner in which science is presented to a non-scientific public. Lawyers and politicians tend not to be scientists, and relish the chance to ask a scientist questions framed in absolute terms.
For example, “Dr. Soandso, can you say with 100% confidence that climate change is a scientific fact?” Of course she can’t. Yet this is presented to the public as an "a-ha" moment, pointing up the unreliability of the science.
A similar ploy is to dismiss a scientific position by declaring it to be "just a theory," which would apply to evolution, gravitation, plate tectonics and planetary motion, cleverly conflating the term "theory" with hypothesis.
How can the non-scientist determine the reliability of a scientific argument? It takes work, which many of us are unwilling to do. We turn to the internet and social media for information, but information is not knowledge. Knowledge is evidence-based, so, like scientists, we must be skeptical of mere information.
Before accepting any statement as true, question the facts supporting it. Determine the source of information and its reliability. Ask if the claimant has a hidden agenda and is his purpose to inform me or persuade me?
We must stop simply assuming the truth of informational content from any given media source and learn to distinguish between opinion and science. It is critically important to understand the reasons science should be trusted and how good science has earned that trust. Our future depends upon it.
Jeffrey Laird is a philosopher and retired cartographer. He grew up in Washington, D.C., and has lived in Frankfort since 1991. He can be emailed at email@example.com