Skepticism and Trust in Science

06 October 2020

Why do so many people believe in conspiracy theories? Do we need to evaluate the evidence for ourselves, or should we just trust the experts? This week on Philosophy Talk, we’re discussing science and skepticism, and the role that trust plays in deciding what's true. 


You might think science denialism results from an excess of skepticism. Some people are so skeptical that they refuse to believe even in established scientific fact, like the dangers of COVID-19, the link between HIV and AIDS, the absence of any link between vaccines and autism, the reality of climate change, or the fact that humans have walked on the moon.  


But I think science deniers are also not skeptical enough, since they often maintain their disbelief by appealing to bizarre conspiracy theories. Shouldn’t a real skeptic be as skeptical about their own beliefs as they are toward other people’s?


In fact, it’s a tricky problem to figure out where you should direct your skepticism. In principle, any data is open to more than one interpretation, and dismissing a study as fake, while it might be pigheaded or perverse, isn’t logically inconsistent. Teaching people facts doesn’t always get them to agree with a scientific consensus; sometimes it just makes them more committed to their own fringe theories. 


And it’s true that scientific communities sometimes get things badly wrong. For example, when Ignaz Semmelweis argued that doctors could prevent the spread of disease by washing their hands, he was not just ignored, but ridiculed and forced out of his job. There are also real cases of individuals committing fraud, like Marc Hauser, Michael Lacour, Andrew Wakefield, others whose fraud was eventually discovered… and who knows how many others whose errors will never be found or corrected. With apologies to Winston Churchill, science is the worst form of knowledge creation, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.


There’s plenty of value in critically evaluating your own evidence, and taking care to avoid motivated reasoning. But when deciding what’s true, it's not enough to rely on our own virtues; we need to trust others. We need to trust scientists to conduct their research carefully, and report its results truthfully, but it goes beyond that.


Most of us are not climate scientists or epidemiologists, and don’t have the time or ability to consider and weigh up all the evidence. Many scientific journal articles are paywalled, and even if you do get your hands on them, you might not be able to understand them. This means that we have to trust scientists and science journalists to correctly summarize the state of the art in most scientific fields. We also have to trust our science educators to teach responsibly, and we have to trust the people in our social circles to share articles responsibly, being alert for misinformation and filtering it out.


I think we can all do our part by being trustworthy. Before you share an article, you can look out for signs of misinformation (like science articles that fail to cite their sources, argumentative leaps, claims that seem too good to be true, and anything that can be refuted by a quick Google search). If you share something that turns out to be false, or make a claim that turns out to be false, you can acknowledge the mistake. You can be curious about science, and can even participate in citizen science via sites like iNaturalist, Zooniverse, or These are all ways of cultivating intellectual virtues, while also contributing to the community trust that’s crucial to scientific inquiry. 


With all that said, there’s a lot I still don’t know about how to detect, reject, and correct pseudoscience. I’m excited to figure it out on this week’s show with our guest Michael Shermer, founding editor of Skeptic magazine and prolific author.


Photo by William Bossen on Unsplash


Comments (2)'s picture

Friday, October 9, 2020 -- 8:04 AM

The New York Times had an

The New York Times had an article about a month ago on why people believe conspiracy theories. According to the study they reported on, which had around 2000 participants, 40% of people were disposed to believe and 60% to disbelieve. The personality characteristics of the believers were: entitlement, self-centered impulsivity, cold-heartedness, elevated levels of depressive moods and anxiousness. It's worth bearing this in mind when thinking about how to combat belief in conspiracies.

TrumanHW's picture


Monday, October 24, 2022 -- 7:33 PM

Is this funded by money our

Is this funded by money our government is allowed to use to propagate their goals ..?

So, the literal science-educated (and either our education is indoctrination or should be respected) originally revered frontline workers experiences make them skeptical of a "vaccine" (that required changing the very definition of a vaccine to accommodate it's failure to behave like one but our government's demand it be called one) ... had the MOST firsthand evidence to couple with that science-degree ... to assess whether it performs as described (protects from infection / transmission, reduces symptoms, has few if any side effects) ... but they should be fired if they conclude it represents a bad adverse-excursion ?

Any other vaccine which "protects others despite allowing transmission" therefore YOU have to take it to mitigate THEIR risks, not yours?

What's that vaccine called?
Are there vaccines that "when WORKING CORRECTLY" result in you contracting & transmitting repeatedly within a year?

In which the percent of vaccinations vs infections are UNRELATED !?
BUT, "trust that science."

I'm not allowed to say, "that doesn't make sense."
You sound like a BABBLING IDIOT who doesn't understand or remember the most common fallacies..?

Argumentum ad verecundiam
Argumentum ad populum

Really, argumentum ad ignorantiam ..? Bc they literally don't know why they think it works ...
(which makes me think it's an ulterior motive, not a sincerely held belief).

The changed from
It's SAFE and you'll be IMMUNE
It's SAFE and you'll be less likely to get or spread it.
It's SAFE and you'll be less likely to spread it and get milder symptoms.

To REALITY: There are serious side effects & we can't prove efficacy bc this is unlike anything ever referred to as a "vaccine"

Every falsifiable claim they made was falsified, so ..? They went to an unfalsifiable claim finally:

So, let me share some facts and laid down some falsifiable assertions:
- I'm an atheist & a general proponent of vaccines.
- To claim you know LHO killed JFK despite all the classified documents is an argument from ignorance.
- We OBVIOUSLY went to the moon: The Russians would've busted us if we lied..
- If we didn't go to the moon, how could we use the same tech for decades after if not actually effectively developed then?
- 9/11 truthers have never calculated the Potential / Kinetic Energy of mass above the crash & ignore steel's insulation being ripped off and cooked at 1900 degrees for about an hour ... nor do they look at the exoskeleton of WTC 7 ... which had problems with its sprinklers.

Yet, you MIGHT just believe
- Russia shelled the Zaporozhye Nuclear Facility they've been in since March!! (shelling themselves!)
- Russia shelled their OWN POW camp ... or
- Blew up the pipeline they can just turn off..?
- The US took advantage of protests and created coup d'etats in many nations, including: Serbia, Georgia, Belarus (failed), Ukraine (twice), etc.

The US is fighting a against Syria (bad when your people oppose the gov?) yet, have prosecuted the shit out of J6 protestors, many who were non-violent, invited in the capitol and merely strolled in, while walking WITHIN THE LINES. I know there were violent people. I'm talking about the people who were not, and who were let in opened doors. But "Assad has to go" ..? Look up Seymour Hersh and Syria Chemical Weapons

You started this off with "people so skeptical they refuse to believe in established scientific facts, like":
- the DANGERS of COVID-19
- the LINK between HIV & AIDS
- a link between vaccines and autism
- the reality of climate change

1. Dangers of COVID-19
NO ONE refuted that.
It was far more lethal.
And China suppressed any revelation of it (sounds like a wet market thing to me).

You're LYING to pretend that represents the "skepticism" people in large have.

We RESENT being forced to take it.
Remember, nothing to worry about.
You're racist if you notice where it's from.
You do NOT need a mask.
Yet, obligated to take it.


Science is OPEN.
Is reproducible
Doesn't just withstands the PRESSURE OF SCRUTINY ... it INVITES IT.

Theories are predictive model which allow inferences not even obvious to the model's progenitor;
Take special relativity, in which Einstein was driven to accept that Time HAD to be elastic, bc the speed of light is not.
(Which is why it's abbreviated with the letter "C" in E=MC2 ... meaning CONSTANT).

We know it was at least very dangerous initially, & that strain exists to a degree asymptotically approaching zero.

We're skeptical about a vaccine from which companies
Withhold all data (statistics) and transparency ...

That isn't US not believing in it or thinking it might be dangerous:

Even after it had FDA approval, the only accessible versions were those issued under the "Emergency Powers" and thus exempt from suit.

Yet, SEALs and PILOTS were being forced out the military if they didn't take the EXPERIMENTAL drug.

The side effects were often learned by MORE OPEN COUNTRIES REVEALING THE FACTS: Japan, Israel, Norway, etc.

We believe we have a database of experiences, and can look at those to make judgements for ourselves.
We also know of this thing called an immune system, in which we keep a library of antigens to pathogens we've recovered from.

Who's the ... SCIENCE DENIER now ..?

It's what made people who tested positive for HIV who then tested negative so valuable.

What about the dangers of repeatedly lying to people..?
Litigating to conceale research findings for 70 YEARS !!
(a lifespan..??)

Changing every vehement assertion, to even the DEFINITION of words.

There may not be a clearer signal than mfrs who demand immunity from legal liability ...
And MANY of the lawmakers being financially CONFLICTED from what you'd expect from BASIC research.

Trust the science..? Let's just tell the IRS to "Trust the citizens"

That's ignoring the fact that renowned physicians / virologists (Robert Malone) were kicked off social media under gov. pressure despite being listed as an inventor of the mRNA vaccine..? Who's critical THESE vaccines being mandatory & is skeptical it really was devoid serious side effect.

To close ... you picked some of the the most contentious claims to rely on as "beyond dispute" for "scientific reasoning" ...

Would you invest in a company that assured people there'd be NO SERIOUS SIDE EFFECTS ..?
Can you PROVE (make a demonstrably true, falsifiable statement) that it "reduces severity" ..??
Can you PROVE it did NOT come from the Wuhan Lab ..??

Of course ... this is the same Gov of ours that says China is a National Security Threat, right?
If so, why give China money for research analogous to biological warfare?
Or, why NOT give Russia money to research nuclear weapons?
And if not? Why are we being so belligerent and bellicose towards them..?

I've never even heard of a group that disputes a link between HIV & AIDS.

Absence of any link between vaccines and autism:
My ex used to teach MR & autistic kids, giving her both the capacity to deal with me & a desire for some explanation. Huge heart, infinite patience & one of the kindest people I've ever known. But, rigorous logic just isn't a cognitive faculty she's much about. When she told me she co-created a feature film claiming a link between autism & vaccines..? Despite adoring her as a person, I invited debate, critiqued her claims & rejected her thesis – AFTER she'd made the film (when I first was aware of it).

But I bet you know LITTLE about the production of vaccines and all the incredible risks taken during those races. The near-impossible justification for the use of heavy metals (mercury) as a preservative and being most acutely capable of toxicity when we're our smallest (mg per kg)...

While I'm most easily described as an atheist in casual discussion..? (it's (severely) unlikely a god exists) -- if I make the assertion in a scientific debate, I HAVE to admit that I'm an atheist-agnostic. That is, I believe no god exists ... but only know that I've seen no evidence of one ... to defend against adopting the onus of proving a god not exist, as claiming the atheist argument to be "true." It's unfalsifiable.

So it's most empirically & scientifically accurate to limit my epistemological assertion to "atheist-agnostic."

While atheism is more consistent with reality, I don't have proof, even with Epicurus great syllogism.

The person making the assertion has the onus. So while I dislike Stephen Gould's "NOMA" (Non-overlapping magisteria) ... from a falsifiability stance? It's the most consistent / honest stance I know.

HOW WOULD you PROVE vaccines can't CAUSE autism..?
I can say the frequency is close to bg to the extent we have honest data, and is thus very unlikely.


Which climate MODEL are you referencing?
What are your error margins ?
Then let's use that on old data and see where we get.

Let's run it forward from 1960 and see if you can be within 10-degrees Celsius by 2020.
Yet you're going to assert that an argument from CONSENSUS gets us close in 100 years?

We've been off by ~1.5 degrees nearly every decade thus far.

And that's LONG before we discuss a practical solution from engineering, which is a FAR better place to put your effort. Because really !?? More people will DIE from an artificially restrained energy-world than one that has warmed or in which sea levels have risen.

Solar? Terrible. Dilute. Unreliable. And becomes less reliable as the earth heats (CLOUDS) ... which ... btw, are the biggest "greenhouse" factor.

Wind & Solar have higher DEATH RATES PER Mw-Hr than NUCLEAR.

And that's comparing 2020 wind and solar to 1960s & 1970s nuclear. DARE adjust those so we compare Mw-Hr's by their ability + cost vs death per year relative to their technological ability...? And it'll be even far worse.

You don't HAVE to argue with people over abortion if you had a way to remove the fetus from a woman's body, incubate it and provide it to someone who wants to adopt.

You don't HAVE to argue about "climate change" with religious people who take a religious stance on "the earth was put here for us to use" ... (if you really believe in the 1A) ... when you can just say, "Nuclear reactors (possibly thorium or something like it) can give us enough energy to replace everything we're doing and will do for thousands of years (if not INDEFINITELY) ... and, REALLY ARE SCALABLE such that you could harvest Carbon from the atmosphere ... desalinate, and make carbon-neutral biodiesel.

WHY make it contingent upon that debate when you could make it an engineering argument ... instead of assuming that Fision will A. happen ... B. not have its own set of problems (for one, COST).

Were I going to make a list of things that differentiated rational people from questionable epistemics..?

- "Did we get to the moon" was acceptable.
- Special Relativity has no conflicting worldviews such that the elasticity of time is debatable... so:
- You sure Lee Harvey acted alone? And no gov. involvement? (same gov still hiding things from you on this ??)
- Is evolution a FACT. (whenever an antibiotic stops working it's been proven again).
- Does Evolution mean Abiogenesis? Nope. And it's unlikely we'll get evidence of that, even though likely true.
- Is Natural Selection a FACT ..? Obviously; we see greater speciation events when selection pressures increase.
- Is the difference between Micro & Macro Evolution not just Time? (obviously)
- Can you really change your gender ? (No. And you should've said that you coward)
- Do we really know there was no fraud in the 2020 election ? (No, if no other reason than we never seriously investigate everything).
- Is COVID likelier to have naturally or artificially occurred & escaped the lab (where the first fatality WORKED?)
- Can we really use 35B barrels of oil, 1B short tons of coal, & 4 TRILLION cubic meters of gas annually w/o affecting the climate?
- Despite indices like sea level rise consistently increasing since we've began using them ? (obviously, not)

But you all do it WRONG.

Instead of disputing whether an embryo or a fetus is a life, why not work on ways to deliver and incubate younger pregnancies so people who want to adopt can earlier and those who want to cease being pregnant can be also. And honestly, when Americans are asked "do you believe in abortion after the _______ can feel pain..? Has a heartbeat..? Or are shown pictures of fetal-development and asked where it'd be wrong to terminate it, or if they could remove a fetus at (shown pictures) stage of development ... there is WIDE public agreement. These are fictional debates.

But either the climate alarmists or peak-oil alarmists have a good chance of being right ... so why have energy wars (like we're currently having and have had) ... and instead switch to something that has over 1-million times the energy density of a HydroCarbon bond....NUCLEAR. Fusion is only 10x greater than Fission ... Fission is GOOD in ... SO EFFICIENT (despite STOPPING ALL INVESTMENT IN FUNDAMENTAL PHYSICS of FISSION for ~50 years !!! And STILL ... it'd be IDEAL for:

• Extracting carbon from the sea and making carbon-neutral biodiesel.
• Desalinating sea water
• Capturing Carbon
• Creating Fertilizer
• Reducing the price per Mw-Hr (esp. once congress gives a "CDA 230" like protection to nuclear.
• PROVIDES nuclear MEDICINE, RTGs (for space), and entire industries!...
• Cheap enough carbon-capture as required to balance regions with excess consumers that can't justify mega civil engineering projects
• More humans die from gas explosions (civil) over the last 80 years than than ALL nuclear mistakes
- Especially bc the more we nuclear we use ... the better we get (even better than we already are) at those precautions.
- Fukushima: 1 Tepco employee died from radiation.

Back to COVID ..? If you want people to TRUST the science ..? JUST SHOW IT TO US. BE TRANSPARENT.

The government covered their risks, then, allowed them to conceal their data and MANDATE WE TAKE IT !?

NO WAY: NO MORE GOVERNMENT SECRETS. WikiLeaks PROVED most secrets our gov keeps are NOT for nat. sec. nor nat. interest.

They're to conceal
- misconduct / nefarious use (theft, cheating, etc)
- embarrassment ...
- to LIE / withhold from us by default
- Defense contracts & lobbying causes WARS
- And our MEDIA is replete with CHRONIC LIARS ... they're a goddamned TROLL-FARMS.

Our “journalists” aren’t "speaking truth to power" ... unpopular statements are too expensive.
They're TROLL FARMS…and you're advocating trusting them instead of "TRUST but VERIFY" aka, DON'T TRUST.

Look at pharma's profits this year. And you think that didn't coopt (regulatory capture) our lawmakers !?

You REALLY trust the government? Ah, you were brainwashed in the US "re-education camps" like China uses for the Uyghurs.
People told you what to believe for 4 years, and economics forced you to acquiesce and evolve from a chordata. How sad.

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