We need humble science and humble listeners

A couple of months ago, Dilbert artist Scott Adams blogged about how science has earned its reputation of mistrust by being certain of itself…and then changing its position.

His example was diet and fitness. “Maybe science has the diet and fitness stuff mostly right by now,” he wrote. “I hope so. But I thought the same thing twenty years ago and I was wrong.”

According to Adams, we should not be surprised when people distrust science, because people have learned that science is not trustworthy. “[Science] has a credibility issue that it earned. … Maybe science is what needs to improve, not the citizens.”

I agreed with most of his points. After all, among my friends who adamantly oppose belief in climate change, one of the strongest arguments is that scientists used to say global cooling was a huge problem caused by humans, and then they said that humans actually were causing warming. How trustworthy is that?

But I would not say that science needs to improve by being right more often. Neither would I say that citizens need to improve by taking science’s word for everything.

Instead, we need to update our understanding of what science is. As Adams says:

Science isn’t about being right every time, or even most of the time. It is about being more right over time and fixing what it got wrong. So how is a common citizen supposed to know when science is “done” and when it is halfway to done which is the same as being wrong?

You can’t tell. And if any scientist says you should be able to tell when science is “done” on a topic, please show me the data indicating that people have psychic powers.

 

He’s absolutely right. But if you listen to scientists complaining about people not trusting science, and then you listen to counter arguments from people who distrust major science claims, then it will become apparent that both groups are united in a belief that science is supposed to be right.

Science is not about finding some ultimate, unquestionable truth. Unquestionable-ness is out of the question, actually, because science is about asking questions. It’s about testing hypotheses. Any number of which may work, and any number of which may not work as well as the next hypothesis—or the previous.

For example: Science preaches that the Big Bang birthed the universe almost 14 billion years ago, right?

Maybe.

According to a recently-published model, the universe may have existed forever. And this model does a better job of explaining dark matter and dark energy than Big Bang-dependent models do. In other words, according to this new science, maybe you shouldn’t take the Big Bang to the bank.

Wait, what? You mean science has been wrong all this time about the Big Bang?

Maybe so, and we should have recognized that all along.

Unfortunately, science is often presented as a done deal. It is often interpreted as a supposedly done deal. So when science gets new information and offers new conclusions to the public, sure, the public will react with distrust.

This doesn’t mean science needs to be right more often. But it means that scientists, the media, and everyone else needs to keep science in context.

(I mention the media because sometimes science’s reputation as a supposed-to-be final answer comes from the way reporters write it up.)

On the one hand, scientists need to present their findings with the humility to admit that this is just the best they can figure out right now. On the other hand, the general public should remember that the science could change later on.

We should expect it to change. We should seek to learn more.

This means a new research study shouldn’t launch a multi-national campaign to force people into compliance with the new study. And it also means that those of us who consume science need to be cautious about up-ending our lives to accommodate the latest study.

That’s uncomfortable for us because we crave certainty. We don’t want to be faced with the facts that a certain food could cause cancer—but who knows for sure, maybe it cures it. We want it cut and dried.

But in truth, the best we can do is to look at all the information we can find and make an educated decision based on that. Sometimes we’ll be wrong—but if we’re humble enough to admit that up front, then when we recognize a mistake we will know to repeat the process—look at all the information we can find and make an educated decision based on that.

Of course, that’s just my opinion. Like science, it should be taken with a grain of salt.

Or without salt, depending on which scientific studies you agree with regarding the good or bad effects of salt.