On belief and science denial

Science, trust, and magic

Arthur C. Clarke wrote “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. We see the consequences of this dictum played out daily. I often see people declare that accepting scientific conclusions is a matter of trust because some things are so complex nobody completely understands them. Significantly. this argument made a brief appearance on a recent March for Science thread, populated by those who support science. Moreover, this argument frequently is invoked during discussions of complex problems such as climate change or the safety of GMOs. Such misstatements originate often, but not exclusively, from science deniers (ahem..skeptics). “After all”, people say “ if you don’t really understand the issues then believing in science is no different from accepting the word of any authority. If I have to trust something, why should I trust science”? I’ve seen many otherwise well informed people dumbstruck by this argument.

The false equivalence of trust

One accepts scientific consensus because of the process used to reach those conclusions, not blind trust. This process has several key characteristics. First, the methods are transparent so that they can be critiqued and corrected. Second, it references and uses knowledge from many sources including those that are critical, and acknowledges shortcomings. Third, it builds on old findings and uses new findings wherever possible. Finally, the data used to make conclusions are open, shared and all relevant data are used even if contradictory. Data can be excluded only when an independent criterion indicates it is not accurate or precise, as opposed to not being consistent with expectations.

The rigor and openness of the methodology of science means we do not accept scientific conclusions on faith. In fact,  we have plenty of evidence that science works. After all, planes fly, bridges (mostly, I85 notwithstanding) don’t collapse, and people no longer die from infection. Even the results of terribly complex models, such as those predicting the weather, work fairly well and are accepted by most of us as useful.

In summary, “trust” in scientific consensus arises from the recognition that science is ultimately a self-correcting process that produces results.  In particular, it emerges from the realization that this process leads to continual refinement to arrive at an understanding of both causality and inherent uncertainty. Thus, accepting the results of scientific consensus is different than accepting the opinions of someone we like, share other values with, or who we consider to have moral authority over us. Critical thinking, not trust, leads us to accept scientific conclusions even when we don’t fully understand the entire analysis.

The new face of denial

In the past, those with a vested interest in denying science simply tried to use their moral authority to sway our opinion. It seems this has become less common as we become better educated. Increasingly, science deniers use a different tactic of presenting arguments dressed up as science and leveraging external authority to dissuade critical evaluation of the actual ideas.

Exhibit A  in these more nefarious attempts at undercutting science is the Heartland Institute’s “educational” pamphlet sent to science teachers. This document is written by people with impressive sounding credentials but lacking the appropriate expertise. Significantly they hide this fact by referring to themselves as the NIPCC in an attempt to borrow authority by obfuscation. Unsurprisingly, the entire pamphlet is full of dishonest arguments fronted by bad science.

It’s tempting for those with respect for facts to debunk these fictions by critiquing the scientific findings themselves. Unfortunately, such arguments often devolve into arcane and difficult discussions that take on a he-said she-said quality, and ultimately are unproductive. As they say: never wrestle with a pig; you will both get muddy but the pig likes it.

Consequently, I think it is better to critique these arguments by pointing to flaws in the process, which requires only sensitivity to logic, critical thinking and understanding of the scientific method. One of the more epic take downs of climate change denialism is from a high school science teacher in a small southern town. More exposure to this sort of reasoning is necessary for us to accomplish our goal of a well educated public, but it is reassuring to know that some of the next generation are being taught by people such as this.

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