Why (Not) Trust Science?

20 January 2023

This week we’re asking why we should trust science—which may sound like a weird question. After all, why would we doubt the method that helps us build bridges and skyscrapers, formulate life saving medicines, and understand the cosmos?

A first question here is why some people don't trust good science. Ignaz Semmelweis, a doctor in 19th-century Vienna, had a revolutionary idea. Everybody around him thought that patients were dying because they had “an imbalance of humors”; Semmelweis gathered data to show that washing your hands between patients was a great way to keep them alive. That should have disproven the “imbalance of humors” theory, but Semmelweis' colleagues were not impressed. He couldn’t convince them that disease is caused by tiny blobs you can’t see. So scientific discoveries sometimes have a hard time being trusted when they're well-grounded, well-argued, and even life-saving. People don't always want to face the facts.

But there's a deeper, more philosophical question about trust in science. Should we think that any of our scientific claims and theories are true? After all, scientists have had a lot of theories over the centuries, and most of them were wrong. Astronomers used to think the sun revolved around the earth; doctors used to think leeches could cure disease; history is littered with disproven theories.

One response to this is to say that this history argues in favor of science, not against it: after all, the reason scientists don’t think those things any more is because they proved them wrong, using the scientific method. And yes, some of what we believe now will likely be proven wrong in the future, but if we just keep gathering evidence and testing hypotheses, maybe we can hope to reach the truth eventually. Like Sherlock Holmes at a crime scene, we just keep on rejecting bad ideas until what we're left with is the truth, my dear Watson.

But just how reliable is the scientific method? Galileo used it, and he ended up concluding that the tides were caused by the Earth’s rotation, rather than by the moon's gravitational pull.  

And how reliable is testing? Part of the problem here is that we don't always know what our tests are showing us. If your measurements don’t match your theory, that could just mean your telescope is broken, or there’s dust on your lens.

All that said, let's be honest here: the very people raising these doubts are doing so by typing on a computer keyboard and sending the resulting text into space. (Not to mention that their work is very likely fueled by coffee brewed in a fancy espresso machine.) And anyone reading this blog is relying on the electricity flowing into their phone or computer to turn my keystrokes into legible pixels. So all those intellectual doubts are a lot of fun, but when push comes to shove, even the skeptics need to trust science just as much as anyone.

So science works—but does that mean it’s true? Our guest will surely have some thoughts on that score: it’s Ann Thresher from Stanford, co-author of a new book, The Tangle of Science Reliability Beyond Method, Rigour, and Objectivity.

Comments (3)

Devon's picture


Saturday, January 21, 2023 -- 8:46 AM

James in Corvallis, OR

James in Corvallis, OR suggests two reasons why so many people distrust science:

1) Our Anthropocene addiction to the dopamine rush of 'certainty' keeps us locked into the illusion of 'knowing'. "I just know", or "It's a gut feeling" is not justified knowledge. Only when we put our ideas about the world and universe, or anything else, for that matter, through the wringer of falsifiability (the scientific method), can we then claim our knowing is justified. This justified knowledge can then be espoused as theory or fact only as long as tangible evidence supports it. Of course, evidence in an ever-changing universe comes, goes, and often changes. How well can an addiction to 'certainty' handle change?

2) Religion and science are inherently incompatible. Not only do people merely distrust science, there are those who are adamantly AGAINST science. These religious-minded folks hold world views of permanence and absolute 'truths' which they feel are threatened by evidence that suggests an impermanent world with no 'creator' orchestrating things. Their distrust in science emanates from a rejection of evidence. For avid believers of gods, ghosts, and other supernatural entities, tangible, physical evidence eviscerates their notion of 'souls' existing in a permanent, eternal afterlife. Religion dictates this permanence as absolute truth and final answer. We cannot expect science to give us final answers or absolute 'truths' in a changing world and universe where evidence does not support these ideas. This would be dishonest. Science is better than that. Science is the best tool we have, to date, that helps us make sense of our world and universe, and of our existence.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, January 24, 2023 -- 2:10 PM

So science works?...does that

So science works?...does that mean it is true? No, not all of the time. Medical science has eradicated small pox and polio. Mostly. Relative to populations and levels of scientific expertise, Covid has killed comparatively fewer people than small pox and bubonic plague. What is my point? The part of the question, asking if science is true is meaningless because scientific truth is somewhat erratic. The best case to be made for science is my coinage: trying harder to think better; doing the best you can with what you have and know.. Without science, we would have less of all that. Truth, entailling a certain amount of ambiguity, is a chameleon and this is unhelpful. You can't put anything on a pedestal; hold it sacred and without exception. I don't care about belief, motive or opinion. Those are nothing more that human constructs anyway. Science is a focused attempt to know by learning and learn by doing. It doesn't get any better than that.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, January 25, 2023 -- 1:45 PM

There has been a big

There has been a big kerfuffle over certitude on another blog I visit now and then. Notice I forced a distinction between certainty and certitude. As a practical matter, they are in the same ballpark. The disparity between religion and science is legend.. The disparity among religion, science and ideology is, I think, somewhat newer. Interests, preferences and motives driving these things are ever-changing. The complexity of that is baffling to even the wisest of any school. Of thought which might have been connected. If one reads Davidson, propositional attitudes might have meaning. Belief, desire, yes, interest,preference and so on are in the mix. Whatever your persuasion, it may be clear there is a compelling animosity among the religion-science-ideology triumvirate. I frankly don't know if there can be a resolution because each treats the other as enemy. A sort of tri-cameral mentality, to stretch the Jaynesean notion. Everything we believe or know has an origin. Those origins do not equal a consistent reality, because propositional attitudes lack consistency, facts and proofs.. So, where are we? Well, we are either nowhere or we are now here. The wording is ambiguous because WE are multivalent. Complexity does that. And so much more.

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