We are living in an era steeped in faith-based science.
Deep trust in science, as defined by those perceived to be authoritative scientists in very complex scientific areas, has become blatant with the coronavirus crisis. To make sure we stayed healthy in addition to staying alive, we trusted what the scientific experts were telling us about the deadly disease.
Now a certain amount of distrust of such expertise has set in.
As the public learns more about the virus and the subsequent extended actions to shut down society to stave off its anticipated ravages, many are beginning to see the overreach that unnecessarily restricted individual freedoms. And, concerns abound about how the template of COVID-19 hysteria and lockdowns will play out with future crises.
Of course, the immediate crisis de jure is climate change, now apparently edging toward a “climate emergency” via the current administration.
To destroy or at least seriously cripple any challenges to contended narratives, whether the challenges are related to climate or health sciences, some settlers of science have devised a simple, timeworn, solution: Trust us, we’re experts.
For instance, in a recently released document, “Science Education in an Age of Misinformation,” by a collaboration of largely academic scholars, the recommendation to determine if information on climate change or other popular scientific issues is trustworthy is to simply refer students and teachers to the malleable online encyclopedia Wikipedia (although a more solid science-based source, NASA, is also mentioned).
This encyclopedic solution to the trustworthiness of scientific information is associated with a simple flow diagram that begins with step 1: “Is the source of this information credible?” Evidence for credibility is given as “no conflict of interest,” “free of ideological bias,” and “political neutrality.” If the source is not credible according to Wikipedia, for example, then simply “reject source,” no further consideration is needed.
“Science Education in an Age of Misinformation” claims that “mutual agreement of relevant experts is the best criterion of trust available.” Yet so frequently the field of “relevant experts” is limited to those that agree with academics. And, arguably, checks of “no conflict of interest,” “free of ideological bias,” and “political neutrality” when applied to nearly unanimously left-wing academics will likely leave much to be desired in the credibility department.
Regardless, such academics consider themselves the arbiters of true science; then, apparently develop arbitrary rules like, if a scientist or organization has a perspective that clashes with mainstream academic assessments, the clasher, despite credentials or experience, is not qualified to challenge the academic. The clasher and their views are to be considered anathema.
But, the practice of science involves contributions from scientists beyond the ivory walls.
Nonetheless, results of research by scientists connected with industry are often considered suspect because of presumed bias. Yet industrial research is proven in practice. The research benefits industry, and society benefits from industry.
Why not be suspect of the results of research connected with academia or even government? Is it at least possible that academic and government scientists are influenced by their respective employers, grant providers or political bosses?
How about this? Maybe integrity and objectivity are qualities of good scientists no matter where they work. Dismissing out of hand the work of a scientist simply based on presumed lack of integrity and objectivity related to their employment or funding source is a bit unfair. The research should speak for itself, after thorough review by nonbiased reviewers.
Ultimately, no group of scientists — academic, government, industry or other consortium — can boast of a claim on Science. To wholeheartedly trust the proclamations of unavoidably biased groups is not advisable.
One of the most respected scientists and educators of modern times, physicist Richard Feynman, perhaps said it best during a speech to the National Science Educators Association in 1966. Feynman asserted that “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” Beyond that, Feynman contended that the “experts who are leading you may be wrong. … there is a considerable amount of intellectual tyranny in the name of science.”
Good observation. Be careful who you trust. Life and liberty depend on it.
Anthony J. Sadar is a Certified Consulting Meteorologist with more than 40 years of experience in atmospheric science and science education. His career has been divided among work in government, academia, and consulting.