Why Trust Science?

Sunday, January 22, 2023

What Is It

According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who trust in science is steadily declining. While politicization is partly to blame, another reason may be that the “truths” of science seem to shift endlessly. So why should we trust science? Is it still reliable, even if it doesn’t seem to settle on a single truth? And what can be done to increase the general public’s confidence in medicine, climate research, or statistics? Josh and Ray rely on Ann Thresher from Stanford University, co-author of The Tangle of Science: Reliability Beyond Method, Rigour, and Objectivity.

Listening Notes

Ray and Josh begin the show by questioning if the truth about the world can be achieved through science and furthermore, if we can know that we have achieved it. Given history’s longstanding series of errors, corrections, and theories, the question “Why trust science?” appears more difficult than we might initially think.

Ray and Josh welcome the show’s guest, Ann Thresher, a science ethicist at Stanford University and co-author of “The Tangle of Science: Reliability Beyond Method, Rigor, and Objectivity.” Ann states that science should not necessarily be trusted because it is wholly true, but rather because it is reliable. Although science can sometimes be false, we often find that its laws are useful for everyday application or at the very least one contextual piece of an incomplete picture. Should the purpose of science be engineering and fulfilling human aims, then reliability is indeed an important feature.

In the last segment of the show, Ann touches on the recent Covid-19 pandemic which greatly increased science denialism. She notes the relation between truth and reliability, revisiting earlier points about applications of science despite its shortcomings and how science can be redeemed through this lens.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (3:56): Holly J. McDede reports on the heroin epidemic and its proposed solutions of safe injection sites, distribution of overdose-reversal drugs, and similar programs. This examples highlights one form of harm reduction backed by science yet hesitatingly accepted or outrightly denied by politicians and public figures.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (45:50): Ian Shoales reports on the evolution of scientific knowledge, methodology, and tools. Moreover, he discusses how culture plays a significant role in fueling the scientific questions we ask and responses we give.



Josh Landy  
Is science just one error after another?

Ray Briggs  
Or is it the only way to arrive at the truth?

Josh Landy  
If it isn't true, why does it work so well?

Comments (4)

Daniel's picture


Thursday, December 15, 2022 -- 4:40 PM

Is part of the problem that

Is part of the problem that natural science can't include human life, and that nature as a domain of objects of study by definition excludes anything affected by optional human design? In the spectacular progress of the rigorous sciences, are some surprised that it explains so little about human beings?

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, January 8, 2023 -- 10:25 AM

There is much about science

There is much about science swirling about now. Politicization is one negative influence, I think. The ongoing pandemic has not been helpful to medicine and that may be more damaging than anything else. And, of course there has forever been the unease of religious zealotry. Other blogs level opinions and judgments, philosophy-based thinkers weighing in, while ecclesiastics pretending to be philosophers muddy the swamp even more. A continuing push towards interdisciplinarianism is troubling because the more this objective is pursued, the thinner distinctions become and effectiveness of once-respected disciplines is diluted, if not diminished. Thinkers want to argue and debate who is/was a physicist two thousand years ago! Come on, now. What does it matter in 2023?
Why do we need to defend Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas? They did the best they could, with what they had and knew, and if they did not they we only doing what they did because of preference, interest and motive---no different to what human beings do now. My brother alerted me to this post.

But it is no more than a current trend, seems to me. There are tens of thousands of people who will not get their children vaccinated. Science is not preventing this phenomenon, nor condoning it. Superstition and social re-programming is mostly responsible, along with fringe activism, based on nothing more than interest, preference and motive, bolstered by belief. Brother and I are senior citizens now. We did not get there through dumb luck. We got here through 'superior preparation, superior attitude' and superior medical care which our elders took advantage of on our behalf.

Would you jump into a volcano, active or inactive, if some reactionary crackpot told you to? I don't think so. Yet, there are those who are actively discrediting science? This makes no sense to me.

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Daniel's picture


Sunday, January 8, 2023 -- 6:08 PM

The problem with science is

The problem with science is it needs scientists. It's not built on trust, but on defensible answers to questions someone didn't know the answer to. Its defect is it requires those who don't trust it, not believers who do. Science without scientists is just another system of orthodoxy, or a sort of academic idolatry which prevents scientific work from occurring. And that holds for practical application of research results in populations as well, as it will always need an argument which derives from the respective scientific work, making lay-people who undertake the practical tasks into armchair-researchers of the applied sciences. But consider this question: Are the sciences falling out of favor because some don't want to hear what it has to say? Or is it the case that the range of scientific results is so broad that it seems to many that all the big discoveries have already been made?

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Daniel's picture


Sunday, January 29, 2023 -- 10:50 AM

To elaborate on the the

To elaborate on the the question of the 12/15/22 post above concerning whether an independence from determination by optional design or deliberate human willfulness in general can be an explanatory element in an observable decreased interest in science, and in deference to its airing at 25:47 on the 1/22/23 broadcast (which airs in my area 1/26/23), a responsibility to respond to the response is deemed appropriate as potentially not unproductive.

Leaving aside the issue of whether the cause of decreased interest consists in a misperception or the actual make-up of an object-domain, Professor Thresher answers a challenge from the latter that claims that science doesn't tell us anything about humans. This however is an unreliable claim, I interpret the answer to assert, because human beings are an animal species and therefore effectually subject to the continuous causal chain understood in the context of an assumed unity of laws of nature. The difference from other objects of natural science is constituted by an increase in complexity due not only to the properties of emotion and intellect, but to an observable interaction with other parts of nature which are more accommodating of rigorous analysis. Does this sound about right? Any corrections to this paraphrase are invited and welcomed. The exchange can thus be summarized as: Are people losing interest in science because it doesn't tell us anything about human beings? Answer: Science on the contrary is informative concerning humans on account of their inclusion in the causal chain of nature. The distinction between discrete optional causes and continuous natural ones remains in tact, but subordinates the former to the latter as connected with it by a descriptive hypercomplexity characterized by a comparative resistance to thoroughgoing analysis.

The argument, which I think is a good one, can be reduced to traditional syllogistic form as:
1) All nature is the object of science.
2) All humans constitute a part of nature.
3) Therefore, all humans constitute an object of science.

As the schema of "if a then b, if c then a, so if c then b" appears perfectly valid, any contention with the argument has to quibble with its premises. The first derives from an implied claim (or "assumption") that natural science is the only kind; and the second is an empirical one deriving from observed interaction between humans as special complexities of quantifiable nature. The problem with the first is that science is something people do by choice, and therefore it's not clear how its optional properties generated by human design can be categorically distinguished from its independently quantifiable, non-optional properties. The second begs the old philosophical question of "freedom and determinism", holding the position of the latter without denying the former.

If permission be granted to borrow a few points from a recent article by Professor Thresher on invasive species,* I contend that a resolution to this problem with the second premise can be offered. In the context of advances in gene-suppression technology as applied to individual species, the author asks whether or not the risk of extinction of the entire species, beyond the target area where it is invasive, is ever justifiably warranted. The answer provided is, if the oversimplification be forgiven: only if the "worst case scenario", species-extinction, would still constitute an improvement over the status quo. While not a recommendation, since current determinations of that judgement might not be conclusive, it expresses a practical principle which is applicable to the continuous causal relation cited as grounds for the second premise. If only this causal chain is considered, and even one's deliberative actions can be in principle reduceable to rigorous quantification within the boundaries of the natural sciences, then how could one justify collective human survival if the claim can be made without contradiction that extinction of the human species would constitute a benefit to nature in the sense of survival of other, non-invasive species? If the one species to which a worse-case scenario principle can not be applied under any circumstances is the human one, then the practical aspect internal to respective scientific research itself overrides its theoretical inclusion of that species in nature as part of it in its lawful causal continuity. The second premise therefore I argue must be false, since if the most rational theoretical recommendation in a worse-case scenario entails probability of extinction of the species to which the researcher belongs, then a practical interest in survival internal to the research-process which makes it, namely the life of the researcher, overrides the more rational imperative by a prior practical interest not reducible to any quantifiable connection with the continuous causal connections which establish the recommendation's authority. In short, if human life can be established as an exceptional case where reliable theoretical results are translated into practical imperatives, then the former must be constitutively independent from inclusion in those results, even where all its connections with them could in principle be specified. In another way of putting it, because people make science while science doesn't make people, any theoretical analysis of the former by the latter will always be incomplete.

Might the above analysis apply to Professor Brigg's question about whether a scientific claim is true because it's reliable, or reliable because it is true? Is it the case, for example, that reliability of resource-extraction as a practical application of theoretical research decides in favor of the former, on account of the unconditioned design of species-survival in comparison to a conditioned one of the potential extinction of others?
*"When Extinction is Warranted: Invasive Species, Suppression-Drives, and the Worst-Case Scenario", 2020.

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