In a remarkable article in the Washington Post Joel Achenbach seeks to explain “Why science is so hard to believe.” By this he means to show why many people do not accept all of the deliverances of science, such as the benefits of putting fluoride in water, vaccines, “the reality of climate change,” and Darwinian evolution.
There are many features of Achenbach’s article which are worthy of comment. One place to start is the treatment of “science” as a concrete entity rather than an abstraction. What I mean is that “science” doesn’t say anything. People say things, and some of those people are called scientists because of their training and profession. So I can’t really believe “science” because “science” isn’t the sort of thing that one believes or does not believe.
What Achenbach is saying, of course, is that there is a body of certain truth claims which are supposed to have an authoritative force which compels belief because they have been discovered and declared true by a sufficient number of scientists. For Achenbach, once a truth claim has been given the imprimatur by “science,” then everyone really ought to believe it. But of course, not everyone does for various reasons.
One of Achenbach’s suggested reasons is that science is hard. Science sometimes gives truths which are counterintuitive, and even really smart people tend to prefer their intuition to the deliverances of “science.” This is unobjectionable as far as it goes. But he also offers another curious reason, and this is what I found really remarkable about his article. First he writes that, “Scientific results are always provisional, susceptible to being overturned by some future experiment or observation. Scientists rarely proclaim an absolute truth or an absolute certainty. Uncertainty is inevitable at the frontiers of knowledge.” Achenbach continues, saying “that provisional quality of science is another thing a lot of people have trouble with.” One of the people who has trouble with it apparently is Achenbach, but it isn’t the kind of trouble he’s talking about. What he apparently means is that because science is not always right, people question when scientists make declarations of certainty such as with Climate Change. But if the results of science are always provisional (and they are), then people should be skeptical about claims of certainty or near-certainty by scientists. And the level of skepticism should increase with the level of complexity involved in the claim or claims in question. Rather than being a troubling phenomenon, this seems to me to be the most rational approach. The statement “the science is settled” is about the most unscientific thing anyone could ever say, and we should be suspicious of anyone who says it.
(As an aside Achenbach contradicts himself when he says that scientific results are always provisional and follows that by saying that scientists rarely proclaim an absolute truth or an absolute certainty. If the results are always provisional then scientists should never proclaim an absolute truth or certainty. Or if scientists do sometimes proclaim absolute truths, then the results are not always provisional. But as anyone who really knows anything about the practice of science or especially the philosophy of science knows, the first statement is correct. Scientific results are always provisional. Which means that what is considered “science” often later turns out to be wrong. Funny he doesn’t mention anything about, say, eggs and cholesterol).
Achenbach highlights another reason to be suspicious of science when he says that climate change is “what is now the consensus of the world’s scientists.” To support this statement he provides a link to a web page with various reports from the IPCC. The statement, however, gives one the impression that all of the world’s scientists have weighed in on the issue and have declared anthropogenic climate change to be a fact. He leaves out that it used to be called Global Warming, or that the scientists declaring Climate Change to be settled science actually comprise quite a small group numerically speaking (he manages to avoid giving the popular-but-false stat that 97% of scientists accept global warming/climate change, but he most likely accepts that false narrative). He also attributes doubt about climate change to the fossil fuel industry promoting skeptics while leaving out the fact that political bodies (like the IPCC), which are funded by politicians using taxpayer dollars, tend to heavily favor pro-climate change studies and conclusions. So another reason for being suspicious of science is that some people like to use the cloak of “science” to advance particular agendas. As much as Achenbach might think this only applies to the other side, he fails to critically examine his own biases.
He does almost get to that point later in the article. Achenbach has a point when he says that people tend to be tribal when it comes to their beliefs about science, and he cites a study by Don Kahan that shows that scientific literacy actually increases polarization rather than decreasing it. Achenbach is a firm believer in evolution to which Kahan replies that this is because Achenbach has an affinity for the scientific community like other science journalists and not because he has actually studied the evidence for himself. Achenbach’s response is telling: “Maybe — except that evolution is real.” One is tempted to facepalm at this point.
Contrary to Achenbach’s naïve science believism, “science” is not an all-or-nothing proposition. It isn’t the case that if one accepts some scientific claims like heliocentrism that he or she must accept all scientific claims including evolution and global warming/climate change. Achenbach’s tribalism simply means that he doesn’t question those deliverances which fit with his existing beliefs, and that’s something that we should all be aware of. Even science journalists.