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Why Trust Science? by Naomi Oreskes

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Reviewed by John Miles

Never in the history of science has asking the question “Why Trust Science?” been more important than in 2020 because science denial in the face of climate change, pandemics, and the loss of biodiversity, among other challenges facing the world, threatens lives and the future of human communities across the globe. Recently I saw a sign at a science denial demonstration that proclaimed, “Science is fake news.” Even the concept “fact” is called into question by those who would state a fact as a political expediency as in one infamous incident where a high-ranking Donald Trump aide said a spokesman “was giving alternative facts” in defiance of objective reality.

The idea that everyone has a right to their own “facts” based on opinions and expediency, that there are such things as “alternative facts,” has become a popular meme suggesting that if this is so, then one might indeed justifiably consider science “fake news.” Why Trust Science offers a strong counterpoint to such dangerous ideas.

Naomi Oreskes is professor of the history of science and affiliated professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University. One of her books is Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, co-authored with Erik M. Conway reveals how self-interested parties have used science denial to sow doubt and thus slow policy making on critical issues informed by science. Current examples of this involves global climate change and its denial by powerful interests in the United States, and the messaging around the COVID-19 pandemic. Oreskes writes that she posed the question “Why Trust Science?” “because in recent decades, some groups and individuals have actively sought to undermine public trust in science as a means to avoid policy action warranted by that science.”

Book review why trust science

Why Trust Science? by Naomi Oreskes, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.

The answer to the question is twofold, she argues: “1) its sustained engagement with the world and 2) its social character.” In seeking to understand natural and social worlds (as in natural and social science), “thinking needs to be grounded upon observation.” Conclusions based on observation must be verifiable. Further, though scientists have values, “objectivity is likely to be maximized when there are recognized and robust avenues for criticism, such as peer review, when the community is open, non-defensive, and responsive to criticism, and when the community is sufficiently diverse that a broad range of views can be developed, heard, and appropriately considered.” Thus, the social character of science.

As a historian of science, Oreskes testifies to the fact that science is fallible, and discusses cases where science went awry as in American science’s determined rejection of theories of continental drift, and its engagement with eugenics. Nor is knowledge, even scientific knowledge, absolute. The history of science “shows that scientific truths are perishable.” So, the question for us is how do we tell “if scientific work is good or not?” Oreskes summarizes her answer to this question as follows: “The diverse methods of science have identifiable common elements. One is experience and observation of the natural world; another is collective critical scrutiny of claims based on those experiences and observations.” Another involves “procedure for critical interrogation of claims.”

Through this process of contestation, novel claims come to be intersubjectively accepted and ultimately viewed as objectively true. The social aspect of scientific work is thus crucial to the question of whether or not scientific conclusions are warranted, because it helps to ensure that conclusions are not merely the opinions of individuals or dominant groups, but something less personal and more reliable. A claim that has survived critical scrutiny becomes established fact, and collectively the body of established facts constitute scientific knowledge.

Recent challenges to the consensus of scientific experts on such critically important issues as climate change and the epidemiology of COVID-19 have raised the need to explain why science matters to ever greater heights.

In Why Trust Science Oreskes offers many insights and observations relevant to our current situation. Here is one:

… it is the nature of expertise that we trust experts to do jobs for which they are trained and we are not. Without this trust in experts, society would come to a standstill. Scientists are our designated experts for studying the world. Therefore, to the extent that we should trust anyone to tell us about the world, we should trust scientists.

Admittedly expertise in anything is being challenged by some today, so perhaps this insight will not have the power that it should. She adds that “When people without relevant expertise criticize science, one should consider the possibility that something fishy is going on. If people are attacking science, there is something at stake, but it is not necessarily something scientific. Indeed, it is probably not.”

Another key point she makes is that we should not trust scientists “as wise or upright individuals,” but should trust science “as a social process that rigorously vets claims.” The consensus among a community of qualified experts is what is important. So, when an “expert” is offered who disputes the claim of the consensus of experts, we should ask who or what interest she serves.

She discusses Pascal’s Wager at some length which asks, “What are the relative risks of ignoring scientific claims that turn out to be true versus acting on claims that turn out to be false.” She argues that if there is scientific consensus on a phenomenon like climate change, then we should consider what to do about its implications. In doing so, of course, values come into play. She notes, for instance, that “Evangelical free-marketers reject climate change because it exposes contradictions in their economic worldview. And because of these contradictions, they distrust the scientists responsible for them.” She adds, “If we fail to act on our scientific knowledge and it turns out to be right, people will suffer and the world will be diminished. The evidence for this is overwhelming. On the other hand, if we act on available scientific conclusions and they turn out to be wrong, well, then, as the cartoonist says, we will have created a better world for nothing.”

Why Trust Science is a scholarly work and includes four “Comments” by other scholars and Oreskes responses to their observations, but I think this book is well worth the effort for anyone concerned about climate change, protection of biodiversity, and other issues that involve science advising policy. Countering the anti-science, anti-expertise, anti-intellectual forces at work in our world today can bolster our arguments with insights from Naomi Orestes.

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