I own a t-shirt that reads “I believe in SCIENCE!” I like this shirt, partly because a lot of people respond strongly to it — I think I’ve gotten more “I like your shirt” comments about this one than any other I own, including my “Chewie is my co-pilot” shirt from Diesel Sweeties. Much as I love the shirt, though, I think the message is wrong, or at least a little misleading.
Because I don’t believe in science.
Now I get what this shirt’s message is saying. In this era in the United States at least, science is often considered to be just another source of noise in the chaos that is life. This shirt is (at least to me) expressing trust in science as a reliable voice in the babble, not because it’s perfect, but because it has shown itself to be trustworthy. However, that’s not a matter of belief. Belief implies a personal decision, one in which there can be reasonable differences of opinion (though there presumably is an underlying truth, even if that’s inaccessible). Belief to me at least involves a piecing together of a worldview where evidence is indirect, incomplete, or entirely unavailable.
Part of the problem is that SCIENCE isn’t a monolithic entity. It’s more a way of thinking, a set of methodologies and acceptable means of collecting, analyzing, and interpreting evidence — including what types of evidence are permissible. The framework of science is large, and some fields of study lie partly within it and partly outside. My trust in science is a trust in its methodology, that if we follow the rules we should come around to the correct answer. Maybe that’s a kind of belief, but it’s a perpetual process of evaluation. Some things we think we know will eventually prove to be wrong, while new studies may reveal things we didn’t suspect.
Of course, scientists can believe things, even about their research. I for one believe we will eventually figure out what dark matter is made of. Will we? I can’t say for certain. My trust is in human ingenuity, which has served science well in the past.
Loyalty toward science, skepticism toward scientists
The modern patriotism, the true patriotism, the only rational patriotism is loyalty to the nation all the time, loyalty to the government when it deserves it. – Mark Twain, “The Czar’s Soliloquy”
I was thinking about this today thanks to two pieces published this morning. The first is an excellent essay on science and its critics by Gary Marcus, written largely in response to professional contrarian John Horgan. As Marcus writes, “It is absolutely correct for onlookers to call for increased skepticism and clearer thinking in science writing.” However, it’s too easy to say that real problems invalidate whole fields, or that the fallibility of humans means that everything we do is questionable.
That leads to the second piece, the fascinating history of “polywater” by Joseph Stromberg. Polywater is a prime example of scientists screwing up, but then correcting the problem. A few scientists in the Soviet Union found what they thought was a new form of water: a polymer with impressively different properties, such as density, freezing and melting temperature, and viscosity. For a while, polywater seemed to be a truly revolutionary discovery, but subsequent measurements showed…well, read the story yourself. Suffice to say that it was based on an elementary mistake, but one performed and repeated by many researchers. Nobody was setting out to defraud, everyone acted in good faith, but they still screwed up. When the solution was found, the scientists involved admitted their errors and moved on. The process worked, at least in the end.
In other words, herd mentality exists among scientists. That’s unsurprising! None of us are perfect; we’re prey to wishful thinking, too much trust in our own abilities (and those of our colleagues), and other frailties. It’s often hard for non-specialists to know which party is trustworthy in a scientific controversy, as Marie-Claire Shanahan pointed out. But here’s the deal: if we’re wise, we recognize these problems exist, and actively guard against them. The best scientists practically demand that others check their work, reproduce their results, and doubt their own conclusions. They list all the ways they could be wrong, and provide alternative hypotheses in many cases. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s one we can trust, even as we verify. To paraphrase Mark Twain, we trust science all the time but specific hypotheses — and scientists ourselves — only when they deserve it.
Certain people (including the recent unsuccessful candidate for governor of Virginia) think of science as a buffet: take what you want, reject the rest. A prime example of this is climate change. Do the implications of a warming Earth and ocean acidification bother you? Reject them. Focus on the data that appear to support what you already think. Point out that our views of climate change have evolved over the years, and exaggerate the difficulties of modeling climate.
However, there’s a reason most scientists agree climate change is real, and it’s not simply herd mentality or widespread corruption (both accusations I’ve heard tossed around). On the contrary, to convince yourself climate change isn’t real, you have to ignore one or more big pieces of evidence. For example, as Michael Mann wrote,
Contrarians noted that if they used the CRU [Climatic Research Unit] record and chose the starting year as 1998, they could make the misleading argument that global warming had stopped because temperatures were cooler in subsequent years…. This tells us nothing about global warming, however. It is meaningless to talk about trends over time intervals of a decade or less. Year-to-year fluctuations in global temperature are simply too large to established a statistically significant warming (or cooling) trend over such a short time frame. [p. 185]
Another common example is the question of whether one “believes” in evolution or not. Adam Blankenbicker wrote, “The believing isn’t what makes evolution true or not, it’s that there is evidence that supports it.” (The whole post is worth reading, covering many of the same points I’m making here.) Once again, the fact that most scientists accept evolution is a sign that the evidence is in its favor, not a sign of corruption, satanic influence, or blind herd behavior.
When we see examples of fraud, error, overblown claims, or famous scientists behaving badly, it’s tempting to say the problems with science are intractable. Knowing that scientists are human may lead us to think the endeavor of science itself is untrustworthy. We scientists want to think better of ourselves, and sometimes deny any problems exist at all. However, many are also working for greater transparency and openness: encouraging people to publish data from failed experiments as well as successful ones, allowing comments other than formal peer review, and the like. I trust science, but if I may be allowed a belief statement to supplement it: I believe we collectively are better than our problems, and can solve them.
I’ll leave Gary Marcus to have the last word:
The most careful scientists, and the best science journalists, realize that all science is provisional. There will always be things that we haven’t figured out yet, and even some that we get wrong. But science is not just about conclusions, which are occasionally incorrect. It’s about a methodology for investigation, which includes, at its core, a relentless drive towards questioning that which came before. You can both love science and question it.
- These comics are frequently not safe for work, unless you’re like me and work from home.
- Horgan is also my mortal enemy, though he knows it not. Even when I agree with him, his tone of superiority and rejection of any conclusion he didn’t personally work out leads me to wish I didn’t.
- Michael E. Mann, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars by (Columbia University Press, 2012)