We’ve been hearing a lot recently about how we need to “trust the science,” and “follow the science.” Anyone who does not agree with the science or the above statements tends to be labeled as unintelligent, ignorant, or otherwise mentally backward, perhaps irresponsible. It is one thing for politicians to use such phrases for political leverage and advantage: science has been invoked for political purposes for about as long as science has existed. To me, it is far more dismaying to see people who claim to be scientists themselves undermining the very essence of what science is supposed to be.
The entire point of science as a means of understanding the universe in which we reside is that it does not invoke trust. This is what makes science so powerful, that at its best, it does not matter who you are, where you are, or what you might believe, so long as you are willing to examine evidence. Its nature is one of skepticism, not trust: something is only considered scientifically rigorous if it can be experimentally verified, and repeated over and over and over again, ideally with multiple experiments by different people in different places using different configurations to achieve results that point to the same conclusion. Even then, the conclusion is not taken blindly as fact, and can be revised or even completely overturned if new evidence arises. I call it a “discipline of skepticism,” and those principles are what has allowed science to drag us, kicking and clawing, one agonizing breakthrough at a time, into the modern era.
To our modern minds, we look back at the “science deniers” of the past as misguided, ignorant, perhaps even malignant, like the attacks on Galileo and Copernicus for the “heretical” nature of their work. Yet what seems obvious to us was not obvious at the time, else it would not have been controversial. It would be like if someone today were to come out and declare that they had substantive proof that intelligent alien life exists, or that the universe and everything in it is nothing but a simulation running on some alien’s laptop. Even if they had strong evidence, wouldn’t we be skeptical of something so outside of our usual experience, and additional evidence to support their claims?
A more modern example is relativity. Although Einstein’s theory of General and Special Relativity is taught as “scientific truth” today, it was greeted with significant skepticism at first, because many of its claims are outlandish. Black holes? White holes? Time dilation? All of this just to explain the motion of Mercury, the one observed case where Newtonian gravity had failed? Well into the last century, most people dismissed black holes as a mere mathematical fluke that could not actually exist, yet starting with a transition in the 1970s, we began finding astronomical evidence of celestial bodies exhibiting many of the characteristics ascribed to black holes. Now, black holes are considered an established fact, although we have no way to know for sure, and they actually break relativity (and a few other fundamental laws of the universe) if they really exist.
In all of these cases, skepticism was merited, even if today’s orthodoxy prefers to peer down its nose at those who did not immediately ascribe to the “right side” of history. The reason that science works, that it can survive controversies and competing theories and uncertainties, is that it is about building consensus, and about being skeptical. When someone comes up with a new hypothesis, they test that hypothesis experimentally, and they publish their data, their experimental setup, and their conclusions. Then, other scientists can examine the data, the setup, and the conclusions for flaws or gaps or even simply other interpretations, and they can replicate the results for themselves, multiple times, and conduct variations on the original experiment. It is a gradual process, and only after there is a preponderance of evidence is a new idea greeted as scientific “fact.”
All of this is to say, trusting science seems antithetical to the very essence of the discipline. When science functions properly, trust isn’t required, because there is something stronger: evidence. And there is always room for competing, contradictory, and even outlandish theories, hypotheses, and ideas. Although general relativity has a strong body of evidence behind it, it has its flaws and gaps, and there are other theories that have been proposed. Those theories are not shot down or derided, but neither are they accepted, because they have less evidence supporting them.
Nuance, though, is not suited to politics, except when it is. There seems to be little room for reasoned, scientific debate on political issues, and the scientific community itself has become increasingly political. Since COVID-19’s debut, things that we once thought to be fact about it have turned out to be false, as new evidence has arisen and we’ve achieved a better understanding. Its virulence, its deadliness, its long-term effects, its vectors: they have all been revised, and are still being revised, and that’s a good thing. In an ideal world, people would be accepting of this as a natural and desirable outcome of the scientific process, but this is not an ideal world, and the cries of “trust the science” have only exacerbated the problem. Trust is all about faith, and those require consistency. When science is blindly followed, it becomes useless, or worse.
The pandemic has thrown this into sharp relief, but the same problems have been on display in the climate change debate for some years now, with those who have the audacity to maintain skepticism being derided as “anti-science.” Perhaps some are, but it is not that simple. Climate is an incredibly complicated, intricate, multivariate system, and going beyond measurements and data to examine causes is inherently tricky. There is so much that we still don’t understand about our planet, our star, and our history that claiming to know, beyond a doubt, the causes for a changing climate and what the effects could be is an acute and dangerous form of hubris.
This is not an argument to ignore science or its recommendations. Instead, it is an argument to embrace the “discipline of skepticism,” and all that entails. Invoking the name of science should not be an argument tool. Specific studies, data, information, analyses, and conclusions can be leveraged, and science in this form can be a guide, but we must always bear in mind that science’s strength is in its ability to change course, even to contradict its previous assertions in the face of new evidence. As you look through the science of today, consider: what we know beyond a doubt to be true today could be tomorrow’s flat Earth.