Why Should They Trust Us?

by Heather Thorstensen | May 20, 2015

This is a guest post written by Sigma Xi member David Garfinkle, pictured below. He wrote this post to expand on his input to a conversation among Sigma Xi members about the "war on science."

David Garfinkle

These days we scientists tend to bemoan the fact that large segments of the general public don’t believe our findings on such topics as evolution, climate change, and the safety of vaccines. Sometimes this disbelief is described as a "War on Science" but I don’t think that is quite the right term. It might be helpful to note the following: We talk a lot about reason and the scientific method, and mention that the data relevant to such issues as evolution and climate change is freely available. However, the vast majority of the general public has neither the time nor the ability to sift through those data and arrive at an independent and reliable conclusion. 

Plaque that reads 'Trust'Thus, when we ask that the general public believe scientific conclusions about evolution and climate change, we are essentially asking them to trust us. And we are asking for two kinds of trust: (1) trust that we (collectively) do have the expertise to come to reliable conclusions on these issues and (2) trust that we are being honest about our conclusions.

Why wouldn't they trust us to be honest? Well, this is an age of general distrust, and we shouldn’t expect science to be exempt. But there is another reason why (some segments of) the general public might not trust us: Polls show that on average scientists are both more liberal than the general public and less religious than the general public. It's not too large a step from that fact to the suspicion among the public that some statements by scientists might be politically or (anti)religiously motivated rather than dictated by reason and evidence. Nor does it help when such suspicions are exacerbated by various politicians and talk radio hosts. 

As for suspicions about vaccines, moon landings, and genetically modified foods, it seems to me that these are based on the following well known trait of human nature: money can provide a motive for dishonesty. The large amounts spent on NASA, and the large amount of profit in the pharmaceutical industry and in agribusiness can be used to hire (or fund) many scientists. (Though admittedly the salaries and grant amounts provided to individual scientists are not large, the motive to keep that salary or grant should not be underestimated). 

Cover of Three Steps to the UniverseWhat should be done to allay these suspicions?  Certainly we should do more to explain how science is done. I have written a book titled Three Steps to the Universe which explains black holes and dark matter to general readers, and also has a lot of explanation of how science is done. However, in terms of reducing suspicion, it might be even more useful to emphasize that science is not monolithic, that on the contrary scientists are a fractious bunch who often like nothing better than to prove other scientists wrong. Because of that fractiousness, in the long run it is very difficult to get away with scientific fraud. Any attempt at fraud will eventually be found out and exposed. The general availability of data and the independence of scientific researchers make it very difficult to have a “conspiracy of scientists.” Someone not part of such a conspiracy will always be in a position to find out about the fraud and blow the whistle.

This general principle is well illustrated by the recent arguments between biologists and the forensic scientists of the FBI. Identification using DNA is very reliable due to the digital nature of sequences of nucleotides in DNA. Earlier methods of identification, such as fingerprints, hair samples, ballistics, etc., are much less reliable because they rely on subjective pattern recognition. Recently, FBI testimony in old cases based on hair samples has been reviewed, and the testimony of the forensic scientists in those old cases has been shown to be unreliable. This debunking of hair sample analysis is similar to the debunking done by an earlier generation of biologists and psychologists of the use of polygraph machines as “lie detectors.”

When we ask the general public to trust conclusions arrived at by scientific consensus, we are not asking them to believe that each and every scientist is a person of such sterling character as to be completely unswayed by any considerations of political ideology, religious belief, or money. Rather, we are just saying that any erroneous conclusions brought about either by mistakes, bias, or dishonesty will eventually be corrected. Thus, when a consensus in the scientific community is widespread and longstanding, it can be treated with a greater degree of trust despite the fact that individual scientists are just as subject to ordinary human failings as anyone else. 

Therefore, I contend that the concept of a "War on Science" actually reflects a dichotomy of what the public thinks science is and what scientists know science to be. New scientific results are simply data for other scientists to prove false or confirm. It’s through this process that science can be trusted over time. 

David Garfinkle is a life member of Sigma Xi and a professor in Oakland University’s Department of Physics in Rochester, Michigan. 

Photo credit for the picture of the plaque that reads "trust": By Terry Johnston from Grand Rapids, USA (Trust) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. No changes were made. 


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