Strengthening Reliance on Science by Injections of Humility

Millions of voters, fathers, and mothers see science as little but a highly organized and influential point of view—just one of many ways of knowing. Science, for them, is opinion, not to be confused with fact.

Scientists and their congregation respond the way supporters of any perspective seem driven to respond. They tout a science that is superior to other ways of knowing, and they do so by persistently exaggerating the scope of that superiority. (Notice how the cartoon at the top of this post presents science as a monolith of findings, resisted by neanderthals denying us the fruits of “progress.”) Science, we are told, is evidence-based, transparent, the fruit of training, modern, dependable, tested, and cautious.  All of these characterizations are often true.  But sometimes the human element in science and the natural desire to explore questions that exceed our grasp at times intervene to mock each of the alleged merits of science. Not only are replications of scientific studies rare and often impossible, but even reproductions of science are disappointingly infrequent. (See the important distinction between replication and reproduction. )

Enemies of science are quick to point out the failures of science to give us utter truths, the kind of hard, firm certitudes that they associate with a woefully misunderstood summation of what epistemologies  tend to seek–FACTS.  And when this conversation plays out, those who disparage science have ample ammunition; they cite claims of scientific truth that are fraudulent, mistaken, and rarely reproduced or replicated.

Having discovered that science in practice is flawed in that it cannot provide universally recognized certitudes, critics relegate science to their alternative to facts, i.e., mere opinion.

How to respond? As Jonathan Swift famously noted

It Is Useless To Attempt To Reason A Man Out Of A Thing He Was Never Reasoned Into .

I suggest that those of us who have deep respect for science stop promising that science can deliver what it too frequently promises. Inject some humility into paeans to science. Contextualize scientific claims; admit that saying things like “evidence-based” to describe science occludes the reality that evidence comes in many quality variations; scientific certitudes should be reworded as probability statements.  Your point is that science is the best game in town, not one where gods reveal universally acceptable chunks of reality.

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