Scientists Should Earn Trust, Not Demand It
Some academics are role-playing the
churchmen who condemned Galileo
The Galileo Affair, admittedly, is usually erroneously portrayed (see our biography of Galileo). One part that has elements of truth to it, though, concerned the way the church handled the issue of authority. Galileo had sufficient latitude for his opinions about science, but only to a point. He ran afoul of the Inquisition when he failed to offer sufficient trust in the wisdom and knowledge of the cardinals. With many others in Catholic-dominated areas, though, there was much less latitude. One was not to question the authority of the church when it came to most doctrines, even in matters of science. Critical thinking could be a career-limiting move, or even a life-ending move.
Scientific organizations are switching roles. They used to admire Galileo; now they have become a virtual church council condemning those who fail to pay homage to The Consensus. The following article can be considered representative of most others we have seen from academia, and others we have reported over the years (e.g., 27 July 2021, 2 Aug 2018). These stories have these traits: (1) Scientists and scientific institutions expect knowledge to flow only one way: from the experts to the peasants. (2) Scientists never have to apologize for getting things wrong and misleading the public; they are never held accountable. (3) Failing to show proper obeisance to the Church of Science can result in excommunication. A second article we will look at has a much better attitude.
UA Study Shows Trust in Science Predicts Pandemic Compliance (University of Alabama, 10 March 2022). Notice two words in that headline: trust and compliance. That’s what we’re talking about.
“If people do not have robust trust in scientific research regarding COVID-19, then they are unlikely to abide by preventive measures implemented by governments and health-related organizations,” Han said. “If researchers and policymakers are interested in promoting people’s compliance with preventive measures, which are suggested and supported by scientific research, they need to consider how to promote people’s trust in scientific research and scientists.”
Spoken like a church cardinal in red robes, this comes from “Dr. Hyemin Han, UA associate professor of educational psychology.” He ran a survey of 14,000 people in 35 countries to make his rather dubious conclusion: dubious, because he ruled out any authority of the peasant class (i.e., non-scientists) who might have differed from the consensus for good reasons. His conclusion, too, is very authoritarian: governments need to teach people to trust scientists! They alone have the truth!
Reasons to Distrust
And yet many people in many countries did not wish to comply with the scientists’ pandemic advice for logical reasons. Among the reasons were shifting scientific opinions, censorship of scientists with opposing views, and some cases of fraud, like in the infamous Lancet study. Some members of the non-compliant public did not like the mandates; they did not feel it was government’s business to tell them what to do with their own bodies. Some asked for scientific evidence and never got it. Some didn’t like the talking heads always on the airways “speaking for science” and demanding agreement, or else you were “against science,” when they had access to equally-qualified medical professionals and researchers who disagreed with the consensus. They didn’t like it when those critics were censored, ejected from Twitter and YouTube, for the crime of non-compliance with the ruling consensus.
Some non-compliant members of the public used their own common sense, knowing that trying to stop a virus with a cloth mask is like trying to stop a mosquito with a chain-link fence. Some used reason, arguing that the one-size-fits-all vaccine mandate was illogical when only certain population groups were at risk. They also saw that some countries without the mandates did better than those with stern mandates. Many hated the hypocrisy of leaders mandating masks but caught partying with campaign donors without masks on anyone.
In short, there were many reasons for lack of trust in the Church of Science.
Earning the Public’s Trust (Warren S. Warren, Science Advances, 9 March 2022). This editorial is a breath of fresh air. Compared to the usual condescending, moralizing putdown of public peons who don’t know what’s good for them, Warren S. Warren understands the reasons for their distrust of science, and criticizes scientists for their part in causing it. Here’s a taste of his rebuke:
If scientists want the public to trust what they say, then we must critically address how well we know what we claim, present counterarguments when there is a controversy, and actively advocate for free and open discussion of scientific issues. Unless we stop calling people who do not buy premature “consensus” deniers and stop accusing them of spreading misinformation and bias, count on “trust in science” continuing to decline when we inevitably get things wrong. Just don’t blame the science for that.
Wow. That’s unusual, in our experience. Prior to that, Dr Warren backed up the rebuke with recent high-profile blunders that scientists made about climate doomsday scenarios that didn’t materialize, or advice that dietary cholesterol was a major contributor to heart disease, an idea that he says has been “completely discredited.” Then he quotes a former editor of the British Medical Journal who quipped that maybe it has become “time to assume that health research is fraudulent until proven otherwise.” Ouch.
In addition, he points out that to many in the public, “Scientists look like just another special interest group, pushing an agenda” and “scientific societies are commonly perceived as lobbying groups, with some justification.” Why is it that the major scientific societies are based in Washington? Hmmm? People see them always begging for more money, never satisfied. No wonder so many in the public lack trust in science. “It’s hard to blame them,” he says.
Warren gives the following reasons for lack of public trust in science:
- Validation of hypotheses is highly field dependent. Physicists need extreme certainty; biologists less so, and medical researchers much less so.
- Time is of the essence in establishing medical hypotheses; that’s one reason for changing opinions during the pandemic. The “science is settled” trope is false; it is never settled. Assertions of settled science are often contaminated with bias and mixed motives.
- Many readers get their science filtered by the media, which has lower standards of expertise, certainty and impartiality. “There is no longer even a veneer of impartiality in mainstream media,” he remarks.
- The higher quality research is often inaccessible behind paywalls. Free outlets for scientific ideas have lower accountability.
- Scientists are often reluctant to emphasize the amount of uncertainty in their research.
- Reporters are often slack in accurately indicating uncertainty in scientific research, preferring to give more confident-sounding statements.
- Reporters are also prone to create controversies where none exist, or ignoring controversies when they do exist.
- Some science reporters have little educational background in science.
While the above reasons exonerate individual scientists somewhat, all of them need to do better, Warren says. Stop the name-calling of “denier” for those questioning the consensus. Be more up-front about levels of uncertainty. And let the public see debate where controversies exist, rather than letting high-profile spokespersons do all the talking.
This editorial is a very welcome change from the usual top-down, domineering attitude of Big Science, where it is assumed that knowledge flows only downward from elites to peasants, and where “misinformation” only comes from below. Still, Warren misses some other weaknesses in Big Science that cause distrust.
- He fails to recognize that Big Science is predominantly Leftist in political outlook, and that this colors almost everything they do.
- He doesn’t mention the very lopsided divide on worldview in academia; the majority are atheists with a sneering attitude against religion. This also is bound to color their science (e.g., it makes the majority pushers of materialistic theories like Darwinian evolution, the Big Bang and chemical evolution).
- He doesn’t mention the censorship problem in academia, where those who don’t go along with the consensus are fired, demoted or canceled.
- His philosophy of science appears to be overly Baconian (i.e., that method produces certainty). He should update his awareness of the limitations that are baked into science by reading more about Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend, C.S. Lewis, Cartwright and other 20th century philosophers who ended the domination of logical positivism.
- He should have emphasized the concern about “imperial science” that rightly concerns many citizens, where learned elites might undermine human rights and the Constitution with their unjustified claims of knowledge.
Lastly, Warren should have mentioned that scientists are often the worst at public policy. They know how to make atomic bombs but are not the right ones to decide whether and when to use them. Overall, though, his editorial is a very welcome change. He emphasized “earning” the public’s trust instead of assuming that science deserves it.
Rather than demand trust in science, science needs to clean up its act and earn the trust it has lost. Many individual scientists do wonderful work that helps people. But the “consensus” is often wrong. Consensus is not science; science is not consensus. Recall that the consensus sometimes has lost touch with reality. The consensus believes:
- Human brains evolved from slime.
- We only observe 4% of reality; the rest is mysterious unknown stuff.
- There are many other universes, none of which we can ever detect.
- Something banged and became thinking minds over billions of years.
- Evolution goes fast (Cambrian explosion) except when it goes slow.
- People can choose what sex they are.
- Science is truth; don’t be misled by facts.
We saw yesterday how climate science is riddled with error and uncertainty. The day before that, we saw that Big Science endorses every Leftist position, from abortion to global governance to CRT to the LGBTQ movement. Big Science intrudes into government policy and expects to be paid for their activism with public tax dollars.
Many individual scientists are honorable and do great work. But Big Science is corrupt. It has lost its love for the truth, and now exists to push its agenda. Why are they surprised that their public trust has plummeted?
What deserves public trust is EVIDENCE interpreted with LOGIC. C.S. Lewis said, “Experimental verification is not a new kind of assurance coming in to supply the deficiencies of mere logic. We should therefore abandon the distinction between scientific and non-scientific thought. The proper distinction is between logical and non-logical thought.”