Don’t “trust the science”

I think “trust the science” is a bad thing to say. I think it hurts the cause of science. Here’s why.

The first problem with “trust the science” is the “trust” part. I don’t think a scientifically-minded society (presumably the kind of society the “trust the science” people want) would use trust as one of the main tools in its intellectual toolbox. In fact, a scientifically-minded person is not a trusting person (at least when it comes to knowledge acquisition) but rather a questioning and skeptical person.

Every time a scientifically-minded person is presented with a claim, that person should ask, “Why should I believe that this is true?” They should require evidence that supports the claim as a condition to believing that claim. They should use logic and reason to scrutinize the claim and rigorously try to find any holes, flaws, lies, tricks, mistakes or confusions in the claim. Only once the claim has passed a thorough set of scrutinizing tests should the person upgrade the idea’s status from “claim” to “belief”. And even then, the belief should be tentative, subject to revision in light of new information.

The other problem with “trust the science” is the “the science” part. Saying “the science” seems to suggest that science is a body of knowledge. But science isn’t a body of knowledge, it’s a technique for gaining knowledge.

When you’re talking about a technique that works, trust doesn’t come into the picture. I don’t “trust” trigonometry, I just use it. For me to trust trigonometry would be neither necessary nor helpful. When I plug numbers into the Pythagorean Theorem and solve the equation, the Pythagorean Theorem gives me the right answer whether I trust it or not. I don’t trust that trigonometry works, I acknowledge that it works.

Unlike the Pythagorean Theorem, science isn’t guaranteed to always give the right answer. Science is carried out by human beings. Humans are notoriously fallible and subject to self-delusion and dishonesty. A scientific claim should be given credence with proportion to (among other things) how much opportunity there has been for that claim to undergo scrutiny.

There are of course certain ideas in science that have been subjected to intense scientific scrutiny over and over and, each time, those ideas have survived intact. A couple famous examples of such ideas are Darwin’s theory of evolution and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. These ideas have survived scrutiny so successfully that no serious person questions them anymore – although I have no doubt that a good scientist would question these theories if extraordinary and credible new evidence were to arise that contradicted them. But despite how solid the theories of evolution and general relativity are, I’ve never heard these ideas referred to by a scientist as “the science”. And I’ve certainly never heard a scientist make a call to trust the science. Instead (particularly in the example of evolution) scientists appeal to evidence, logic and reason. We should believe that the theory of evolution is true not because scientists say it’s true, but because the theory of evolution accords with evidence, logic and reason better than any other theory that has been put forth to try to explain the origin of species.

One argument that I’ve heard in favor of “trust the science” is that laypeople don’t have access to the source material, and so there’s no choice but to trust the science. But that’s not “trusting the science”, that’s trusting authority. Trusting authority is fine, with certain qualifications (although it’s often very bad too). If for example Richard Dawkins tells me that there are 68 species of kangaroo, then I’m inclined to take his word for it. I generally trust Richard Dawkins to be able to convey true facts about biology, and I don’t feel inclined to fly to Australia to verify for myself that there are in fact 68 species of kangaroo. But that’s not me “trusting the science”, that’s me trusting Richard Dawkins.

Obviously, the thing people have been talking about when they’ve recently implored people to “trust the science” is “the science” on COVID-19 and the COVID-19 vaccines. Even if science were a body of knowledge, which of course it’s not, it would be hard for me to accept the idea that there’s a single body of claims regarding coronavirus vaccines that could be called “the science on COVID-19 vaccines”. And it would also be hard for me to tell what that body of knowledge supposedly was. I think the real message when many people say “trust the science” is “trust the authority figures who are saying to get the vaccine”.

When the COVID-19 vaccines first became available, I got vaccinated as soon as I could. It wasn’t even a question. The reason wasn’t because I “trusted the science” or trusted any authority figures who were giving advice about COVID-19 vaccinations. The reason was because I had already made up my mind long ago, based on common sense and an understanding of history, that vaccines are on average very safe and hugely effective in fighting disease.

For all I know it may be true that the COVID-19 vaccine is a significantly more risky vaccine than most “regular” vaccines. But it doesn’t matter, because what matters is not the comparison of the COVID-19 vaccine to other vaccines but rather the comparison of getting the COVID-19 vaccine versus the risk of getting COVID-19 itself. Obviously (to me), the risk of getting COVID-19 is a much worse risk to take. Again, no “trusting the science” involved. Not even a high level of very accurate knowledge required. Just a little bit of easy logic.

I hope the phrase “trust the science” goes permanently out of fashion. Science is one of the best things humanity has ever come up with. Science is responsible for a large number of dramatic improvements to the human condition, including the eradication of horrible diseases and virtually every other medical advance. But there’s no such thing as “the science” as in a body of knowledge, and it doesn’t make any more sense to “trust” science than to “trust” (to use the example again) trigonometry. Saying “trust the science” misunderstands science and helps make an already scientifically-illiterate society even more scientifically-illiterate. Instead I think we should acknowledge the validity of science as a knowledge acquisition method and make use of our own reason, logic and critical thinking.

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