Why should we trust science? Because she doesn’t trust herself

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 about many important issues, from climate change denial to reluctance to receive vaccines during the COVID pandemic. And while most of us tend to dismiss such doubts as unjustified, it raises the question: Why should we trust science?

As a philosopher who focuses on the philosophy of science, this question is of particular interest to me. As it turns out, diving into the works of great thinkers can help provide an answer.

common arguments

Someone thinks it might at first come to mind that we should trust scientists because what they say is true.

But there are problems with this. The first is the question of whether what the world says is actually the truth. Skeptics will point out that scientists are just human beings prone to making mistakes.

Also, if we look at the history of science, we find that what scientists believed in in the past often turned out to be wrong. This suggests that what scientists now believe may one day turn out to be wrong. After all, there were times in history when people thought mercury was possible Treat syphilis, and that bumps on A person’s skull can reveal personality traits.

Phrenology was a popular pseudoscience in the 19th century that claimed that spurs on a person’s skull could reveal their mental traits.
stock struggle

Another tempting suggestion as to why science should be trusted is that it is based on “facts and logic.”

This may be true, but unfortunately it helps in a limited way to convince someone who tends to reject what scientists say. Both parties to the dispute claim to have the facts on their side; Climate change is not known Deniers Saying that global warming is just a “theory”.

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Popper and the scientific method

One influential answer to the question of why we should trust scientists is that they use the scientific method. This, of course, raises the question: What is the scientific method?

Probably the most famous novel presented by a philosopher of science Karl Popperwho influenced winning the Einstein Medal Mathematical Physicist The Nobel Prize winners in biology And the Physiology and Medicine.

Black and white photo of Karl Popper

The British-Austrian Karl Popper (1902-1994) was among the most influential philosophers of science of the 20th century.
Wikimedia Commons

for PopperScience begins with what he calls “conjectures and refutations.” Scientists face some questions, and offer a possible answer. This answer is a guess in the sense that, at least at first, it is not known whether it is true or false.

Popper says scientists are doing their best to disprove or prove wrong this conjecture. Usually it is refuted, rejected, and replaced with a better one. This will then be tested as well, and eventually replaced with a better one. In this way science advances.

Sometimes this process can be very slow. Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves more than 100 years ago, as part of his general theory of relativity. But it was only in 2015 that scientists managed to do that watch them.

For Popper, the essence of the scientific method is an attempt to refute or refute theories, the so-called “falsification principle”. If, despite their best efforts, scientists cannot disprove a theory over a long period of time, the theory is “confirmed” in Popper’s terms.

This points to a possible answer to the question of why we should trust what scientists tell us. That’s because, despite their best efforts, they couldn’t disprove the idea they tell us to be true.

Majority rules

Recently, the answer to the question was further clarified in a the book Written by science historian Naomi Oreskes. Oreskes acknowledges the importance Popper attaches to the role of attempting to refute theory, but he also emphasizes the social and consociational component of scientific practice.

For Oreskes, we have reason to trust the science because, or to the extent that there is a consensus among the (relevant) scientific community that a particular claim is correct – the same scientific community has done its best to refute it and fail.

Here is a brief sketch of what a scientific idea usually goes through before a consensus emerges that it is true.

A scientist might give a paper about an idea to colleagues, and then they discuss it. One goal of this discussion will be to find something wrong with her. If the paper passes the test, the scientist may write a peer-reviewed paper on the same idea. If the judges think it has enough advantage, it will be published.

Others may then test the idea. If it passes enough of these, a consensus may appear to be correct.

A good example of a theory undergoing this transformation is the theory of global warming and the human impact on it. It had been suggested as early as 1896 that increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere may lead to global warming.

In the early twentieth century, another theory emerged that not only did this happen, but the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities (ie the burning of fossil fuels) could accelerate global warming. It gained some support at the time, but most scholars remained Unconvinced.

However, throughout the second half of the twentieth century and so far into the twenty-first century, the theory of human-caused climate change has successfully passed such ongoing testing that one recent meta-study found more than 99% of the relevant scientific community accept her reality. It may have started as a mere hypothesis, has successfully passed the test for over a hundred years, and has now gained near-universal acceptance.

bottom line

This does not necessarily mean that we should accept everything scientists say uncritical. There is of course a difference between one isolated scientist or a small group saying something, and there is a consensus within the scientific community that something is true.

Of course, for a variety of reasons—some practical, some financial, some not—scientists may not have done their best to disprove an idea. And even if scientists have repeatedly tried, but failed, to disprove a particular theory, the history of science indicates at some point in the future that it may still be wrong when new evidence emerges.

So when should we trust science? The view that seems to emanate from Popper, Orisches, and other writers in the field is that we have good, but fallible, reason to trust what scholars say when, despite their own efforts to disprove an idea, there is still consensus that it is true.

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