WHY SHOULD WE TRUST THE SCIENTISTS?
("Is Science Just Another Dogma" Revised)
Ernest Partridge, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers
"In the conditions of modern life, the
rule is absolute: the [nation] that does not
value trained intelligence is doomed."
Alfred North Whitehead
"That’s just my opinion, but I’m sticking with it!"
"Well, it’s true (or good) for me!" "Who’s to say?"
These are the sort of student pronouncements that drive
Philosophy professors into early retirement. More often then not, they are
"thought-stoppers," indicating a firmly closed student mind.
But not always. That question, "who’s to say?," might
also be a plea deserving an answer. If so, it is the sort of student
question that philosophy professors cherish, for it is an opening door to
philosophy and to science. As Socrates reportedly said:, "philosophy begins
in wonder." Also science.
So why should we give more credence to the conclusion of
97% of thousands of climate scientists, than we give to Sen. Inhof’s
snowball or the Heartland Institute’s sophistries? And why should we believe
evolution rather than Genesis? Isn’t evolution "just a theory"? Why
shouldn’t we regard science a "just another dogma? That is the guiding
question of this essay.
These days, snarky thought-stoppers that attempt to
reduce facts to personal beliefs are not unique to college students. Just
listen to the media, to corporate public relations, to televangelists, or
worst of all, to the policy pronouncements of the Trump administration and
congressional republicans.. Consider the spectacle of the tobacco company
CEOs telling the Congressional committee, under oath, "I do not believe that
nicotine is addictive" – this, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that
nicotine is, in fact, addictive.
And as noted above, the virus of irrationalism is
epidemic in the colleges and universities of the realm, in the guise of
"post-modernism" whose most extreme adherents regard competing theories of
reality, such as astronomy and astrology as "social constructs" and
"stories," each with an "equal right to be heard and appreciated."
How has it come to this? Throughout the just-completed
century, the United States has been the world leader in technological
innovation and scientific advancement. And yet, the American public, by and
large, is dismally ignorant of basic scientific information. Thus the Los
Angeles Times reports (May 10, 1992), that a third of Americans believe that
astrology "has some scientific merit," and reportedly half do not accept
evolution. And in May, 1996, the Associate Press reported that "fewer than
half of the American adults understand that the Earth orbits the sun
yearly... Only about nine percent knew what a molecule was, and only 21
percent could define DNA."
A library of books have been written about the
methodology of science, many of them quite controversial. Among philosophers
of science one will find a myriad of hotly contested theories about "how
science works." Even so, there are a few fundamental features of scientific
activity that most observers of science will accept, and which the ordinary
non-scientific citizen might readily understand. These are also features
that set science distinctively apart from non-scientific truth claims. I
will discuss just nine of these features.
First, scientific activity is public and replicable.
The community of scientists is elite and restricted, and
yet, paradoxically, it is also open. Few individuals are qualified to
conduct an experiment with a particle accelerator, or to carry out a DNA
test. But anyone with requisite intelligence and diligence who is willing
and able to undergo the required training may, in principle, be able to
perform these activities. Moreover, any and all such qualified individuals
must be able to repeat the experiments and produce the evidence claimed by
other scientists. Remember "cold fusion," that "revolutionary scientific
breakthrough" that was going to supply us with an endless supply of cheap
energy? It failed the "replicability test." Repeated failures by other
scientists to duplicate the results claimed by Fleischman and Pons led to
the well-deserved demise of this "breakthrough." "One-time-only" episodes of
"Divine revelation" and "anecdotal evidence" from singular events do not cut
it scientifically. (However, as we will see below, some accounts of singular
events can launch fruitful scientific investigations).
Science is Cumulative.
"If I have seen further," said Isaac Newton, "it is by
standing on the shoulders of giants." And thus, of course, Newton was
another of those "giants." Mathematics necessarily developed sequentially,
from arithmetic to algebra (the Arabs) to analytic geometry (Descartes) to
calculus (Newton and Leibnitz). Without Galileo and Kepler, there would have
been no Newton. Without Linnaeus, no Darwin. Because science is ever open to
new discoveries (see "falliblism" below), science allows nature to "speak to
us" through experiment and observation. But only if we ask nature the right
questions (i.e., if we know what we are looking for and describe it with an
adequate (often mathematical) vocabulary. The science of the preceding
"giants" gives us those questions. Thus science, as an accumulating body of
knowledge and theory, is vastly greater than any particular scientist.
Science is Systemic, Coherent and Comprehensive.
Scientific theories are marvelous structures built out of
scientific concepts ("vocabularies"), laws, empirical facts, and logical
entailments. They are not, as "creationists" say of evolution, mere
unconfirmed "facts." The word "theory" has a vastly different meaning to the
scientist than it does in everyday discourse, (as I explain in my "Creationism
and the Devolution of the Intellect"). To the scientist, "facts" are ingredients of
theories. And as theories encompass more observed and confirmed facts and
formulate new "laws," this theoretical growth reverberates throughout the
entire theoretical system. Thus, for example, post-Darwinian discoveries in
genetics, bio-chemistry and paleontology have not "refuted" evolution, they
have enriched and expanded it.
Robust scientific theories are characterized by their
scope of application (comprehensiveness) – another manifestation of their
structure and coherence. Thus, for example, "natural selection" explains
such diverse phenomena as dated sequence of fossils, comparative anatomy and
physiology, comparative species, DNA, declining potency of insecticides and
antibiotics. Similarly, Einstein's theory of relativity explains
observations at the working end of particle accelerators, nuclear and
thermonuclear reactions, the behavior of clocks on spaceships, astronomical
observations, and the apparent bending of light near massive objects (e.g.,
during a solar eclipse).
Science is Empirical.
A scientific investigation "begins" and "ends" in
experience. A scientist might find, in the field or his laboratory, an
interesting phenomenon worthy of investigation. For example, Darwin found
varieties of finches on the Galapagos Islands and the South American
mainland. Why both the variety and the similarities? And Wilhelm Roentgen
accidentally made a momentous discovery while experimenting with X-Rays in
his laboratory. In a desk drawer below his apparatus, a key was placed atop
an unexposed photographic plate. He later discovered an image of the key on
the plate. How come? His search for an answer led to X-Ray photography.
Darwin and Roentgen developed hypotheses ("hunches") to
explain these experienced phenomena. Some failed to "pan out" in experience,
so new hypotheses were formed. Eventually, they came up with hypotheses
which, in conjunction with settled scientific concepts and data, predicted
events which were empirically confirmed by experiments and observations.
Scientific theory and laws are not made up of "hunches."
And yet creative imagination ("hunches") can play an important role in
scientific investigation. Legend has it that Archimedes came upon the
concept of specific gravity while taking a bath. (Did he really? Who knows?
Who cares? The story is illustrative, not scientific). James Watson tells us
that the idea of the double helix came to him as he recalled his boyhood
exploration of the spiral staircase at a lighthouse. And Einstein thought of
relativity as he was riding a Zurich trolley and contemplated the "relative
motion" of a passenger walking in the trolley.
But when the scientific community demanded confirmation
of the theory of DNA, Crick and Watson did not look to lighthouses. Nor did
Einstein demonstrate Special Relativity with a trolley car. These insights
were the beginning, not the end, of scientific inquiry. The inquiry "ended"
with empirical confirmation in the laboratory or the field.
Scientific assertions are Falsifiable.
For any statement whatever in the body of science, we
know what it would be like for that statement to be false. (I exclude
"formal" statements: e.g., definitions, logical rules and tautologies, which
lack external empirical reference – a technical point which I won't
elaborate here). It is thus possible, in principle, to describe a refutation
of a scientific claim. In other words, scientific statements, hypotheses and
theories are falsifiable – not "false," but falsifiable. The distinction is
To put it another way, for an hypothesis,
prediction or confirmation to have scientific meaning, one must be prepared
to say, "expect to find such-and-such empirical conditions in the world, to
the exclusion of other describable conditions." If you find these
conditions, your statement has been proven true of this particular "real
nature," and not some "fanciful nature." For example, Galileo determined
that a free-falling object falls at a distance of d = ½ gt2 (with
"d" for distance, "t" for time, and "g" for a gravitational constant at the
Earth's surface). Not 1/4g or 1/3g, but 1/2g. And not time cubed, or time to
the 2.5 power, but time squared. In other words, that simple equation
describes one sort of nature to the exclusion of an infinitude of other
"natures" described by different formulas. But experimentation and
observation has proven that Galileo's formula applies to the "nature" we
live in. In short, the free-fall formula is falsifiable. We can easily
describe how it might be false but have determined experimentally that it is
Similarly, in Eddington's famous 1919 eclipse experiment,
Einstein's theory of relativity predicted that star near the eclipse would
appear in a precisely defined location, and not in any other location in the
night sky (a falsification). And sure enough, it appeared where predicted by
the relativity theory. Confirmation!
In contrast, dogmas give us unfalsifiable assertions.
Once in a debate with an evangelical minister, I asked: "Why should I
believe that the Bible is the inerrant truth, and that I must believe in
Jesus Christ to be saved?" He replied, "just you wait – when you die and
face your maker, then you will find out." Of course, that challenge was
utterly unfalsifiable to anyone alive, which is to say, to anyone at all.
Similarly, economic dogmas, which are "theory rich," have an "explanation"
(after the fact) for every and any developments in the national economy.
And if one theory in the economist's kit of tools won't work, he has another
that will. What such an economist cannot do is describe a turn in the
economy that would disprove his dogma. In short, unfalsifiable assertions,
because they describe every possible world, describe nothing unique about
the world we live in, which is to say that they "describe" nothing at all.
(The Falsifiability rule has been challenged by many
reputable philosophers of science. My blunt reply: they are correct, but so
what? Falsifiability remains as a robust and essential, albeit imperfect,
I explain in this supplementary note).
Scientific assertions are fallible.
An important implication of the falsifiability rule, is
what Charles Peirce called "Falliblism." Because every scientific statement
is falsifiable, we must be forever open to the possibility (however remote)
that some new observation or experiment will prove it wrong. The "falliblist"
says, in effect, that "while I have strong beliefs, I am forever prepared to
change these beliefs if confronted with compelling evidence to the
We have often heard that "science has been proven to be
wrong in the past." True
enough! But what has
discovered and corrected scientific error? Science of
course. Again, as a human institution, science is imperfect – which is to
say, "fallible." But science is far and away the best remedy for the
imperfections of science.
The Order of Scientific Inquiry proceeds from evidence
In science, as in jury trials, the outcome remains in
doubt until all the evidence has been examined and evaluated. Evidence is
assembled, hypotheses and theories are tentatively formed, and from all
this, events and conditions (all "falsifiable") are predicted. Only if the
predictions "pan out," are the hypothesis and theory confirmed, whereupon
science progresses once again.
In contrast, dogmatists take the position of the Red
Queen in Alice in Wonderland – "verdict first, trial afterwards." The
caption of a New Yorker cartoon that I have used for years in my classes
summarizes that "method" perfectly: "That is the gist of my position, now go
out and get some evidence to base it on." This is the strategy of the
preacher, the advertiser, and the political propagandist. The doctrine, or
the client's product, or the party policy are all sacrosanct – not to be
questioned. Beneath this exalted and unalterable truth, a scaffold of
concocted "evidence" and argumentation must be assembled. This is the
methodology of "creationism," of the Tobacco Institute, of the Global
Climate Coalition (funded by the fossil fuel industry), and of the Supreme
Court decision of December 12, 2000, Bush v. Gore.
And, of course, it is a "methodology" that is
unfalsifiable – no amount of evidence to the contrary will budge these
advocates from their pre-ordained conclusions. Witness the behavior and
utterances of "climate change deniers."
In Science, as with Jury trials, the Burden of Proof
is on the Affirmative.
We've all heard it in political and religious debates:
"Prove me wrong." It a cry of despair. A belief, innocent of supporting
evidence, is proclaimed to be true, absent a compelling argument in the
negative. (Logicians call this "the ad
This tactic of placing the burden of proof on the
negative is inadmissible in courts of law, where the burden must fall on the
prosecution (to prove affirmative guilt) rather than on the defense (to
negatively prove "not guilty").
Common sense shows us the wisdom of placing the burden of
proof upon the affirmative. For example, no one has found any evidence of
Noah's ark on Mt. Ararat. "So prove to me that it isn't there and never
was!" Of course we can't. Is this sufficient reason to believe the Bible
story, and that this mountain is the place in question? Similarly for
stories about Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, and UFO abductions. "Prove me
wrong!" Well I can't, but so what?
The rule of "burden of proof on the affirmative" is a
splendid device for de-cluttering the mind of intellectual rubbish. One
might approach the world with the attitude of believing everything not
disproved or, on the other hand, believing nothing unless proved. The
latter, the approach of the scientist, is a far more reliable guide to
truth, not to mention the management of one's practical affairs.
George Santayana had it just right: "Skepticism is the
chastity of the intellect."
Science is Universal.
The foregoing list of distinguishing qualities of science
indicates, I trust, that science is "not just another dogma." This fact is
demonstrated by the universal appeal and application of science. Scientists
from around the world readily communicate with each other, as scientists,
regardless of their political, religious and cultural differences.. Science
is an institution and tradition which, while not without subjective elements
(e.g. creative "hunches" and imaginative theories), attains an objectivity
through its constant commerce with nature, and through the discipline of its
methodology which ruthlessly culls out theories and hypotheses that fail the
test of confirmation. Science is not perfect – no human institution is. Nor
does science encompass all human knowledge, for there is much more to be
learned from the arts, from literature, from moral reflection and practice,
and from living in the company of fellow human beings in a well-ordered
society. But science is supremely good at what it does – discovering the
nature of physical, biological, and social reality, and articulating that
reality in abstract and general laws and theories.
All Americans affirm science every time they boot up a
computer, start a car or make a phone call. These everyday activities take
place only through the successful application of thousands of scientific
laws and theories. When the evangelical preacher stands before a TV camera
to denounce evolution, or Donald Trump to debunk global warming as "unsound
science," they both know that the device that is pointing at them will send
their image and words to millions "out there." Thus they implicitly affirm
the validity of physics, chemistry, advanced mathematics and computer
science, even as they deny biology and atmospheric science.
You are presumably reading this essay on the internet.
Therefore, numerous scientifically proven natural laws regarding the
electro-magnetic spectrum, the properties of semi-conductors, theories of
circuitry, and much more, are all true. The scientists and engineers
(applied scientists) have all successfully done their jobs.
I defy you to supply a non-scientific explanation as to
how your are able to pick this piece off the internet and read it on your
Faith? A miracle? The Grace of God? Good
luck with that!
The downgrading of science is quite agreeable to the
religious right, of course. But also to the corporations that own Trump and
the "Tea Party" Republicans in the White House. And as the pesticide and
tobacco cases vividly demonstrated in the past, and the global warming issue
reminds us today, scientific research and discovery can be very threatening
to the corporate bottom line. A scientifically educated and sophisticated
public would appreciate the significance of that research and discovery, and
would see through the sophistry of corporate public relations. That same
public, under a democratic system, would select leaders that act in behalf
of all citizens, act to preserve the natural environment that is our
ultimate source and sustenance, and act to the benefit of future
generations. Accordingly, those corporate elites whose concerns are confined
to their own self interest have no stake in a public that thinks critically
and is scientifically informed. Sadly, the American public today gives those
elites little cause for concern.
Nonetheless, the science deniers should be gravely
If the Trump administration and its successors continue
to defund scientific research and education, and if a ruling American
political party continues to deny and disparage science, preferring dogma
and "false facts," then science will not "go away." More likely, the United
States will cease to be a significant world power.
The once-outstanding American research universities will
no longer attract talented young students from the United States and abroad,
and these institution will no longer produce leading-edge research and
innovations. However, science will continue to flourish elsewhere, where it
will be cherished and generously supported: in China, in the Pacific Rim, in
western Europe, and yes, in Russia.
Continuing the Whitehead quotation that began this piece:
Not all your heroism, not all your social charm,
not all your wit, not all your victories on land or at sea can move
back the finger of fate. Today we maintain ourselves. Tomorrow
science will have moved forwards yet one more step, and there will
be no appeal from the judgment which will then be pronounced on the
uneducated. ("The Aims of Education")
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field
of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at
the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He
publishes the website, "The Online
Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website,
"The Crisis Papers".
Send E-Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org .