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Trusting the science

August 9, 2012
Let’s check the science: Why should I trust science ahead of other knowledge? 

I have friends who accept all sorts of pseudoscientific ideas – astrology, homeopathy, channeling, energy medicine, to name a few. We occasionally argue about their validity, and usually end up at a stand-off. I point out that there is no scientific evidence to support them, and in many cases there is evidence to show they are nonsense. They adopt the position that science can’t claim the final word – that  there are other sources of knowledge that have authority to match or even overrule science. Why are they wrong?


The people who came before you invented science because your natural way of understanding and explaining what you experience is terrible. When you believe in something, you rarely seek out evidence to the contrary to see how it matches up with your assumptions. That’s the source of urban legends, folklore, superstitions, and all the rest.

David McRaney, American journalist and author, 2013

The limits of science

Why science is different.

A tragic side-effect of our democratic lifestyles is that so many people believe all opinions are equally valid. This is, of course, nonsense. All opinions have equal rights to be heard, but that says nothing about their validity. Believing something very strongly counts for nothing in judging its worth. As I’ll show in the next section, scientific knowledge isn’t just opinion or narrative or dogma or faith or social construct. It’s a painfully-assembled account of what’s really there in the natural world. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that the scientific process is used only by people in white lab coats. Historians, crime-fighters, journalists and countless others use its methods all the time

What is it about science that makes it trustworthy?

The scientific process is the best way of finding out about the natural world. That’s because it has evolved a whole kit of strategies for minimizing errors due to normal human failings, biases and faults in reasoning. Individual scientists can be jealous, proud, frustrated, sneaky, naive, misled and so on, just like everyone else. But nearly always, all of that comes out in the wash of the scientific process, leaving just the evidence. We don’t need to trust every individual scientist because science is a communal activity and it does not rest on authority.

Here’s why it’s the best method. When the scientific community investigates a problem:

  • Scientists come up with models that include mechanisms and are falsifiable. At first, there may be several models in contention and they need to fit coherently with other scientific models.
  • The models are tested in the real world. Models that aren’t supported by the evidence are rejected.
  • Reports describing surviving models, the tests that were used and their supporting evidence are published in journals.
  • The scientific community gives feedback. The reports are reviewed by other scientists both before and after publication. Sometimes the tests are replicated as a check.
  • Usually, a single model emerges as the one that fits the evidence best. This model is usually supported by multiple independent lines of evidence. The chances that it has serious errors are slim.
  • Even so, every scientific model remains tentative. There is always the possibility it may be replaced by a better model.

This process doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time for a new model to be fully accepted by the scientific community.

What about all the errors and reversals?

Of course, the scientific process is not perfect. Sometimes scientists make mistakes that go undiscovered for a long time. Sometimes they actually cheat. But that happens very rarely, and sooner or later it’s detected and rectified.

Science is very competitive and that’s one reason why there are sometimes reversals in scientific knowledge. Nothing boosts a scientist’s career like the overturning of some existing model. Previous knowledge is constantly being challenged. ‘Good cholesterol’ (HDL) may not protect against heart disease after all; a review shows that the benefits of PSA screening for prostate cancer don’t outweigh the harms; we now know the earth is warming, not heading for another ice age. But claims of faster-than-light neutrinos overturning the theory of relativity were shown to be wrong: so were claims of cold fusion and polywater.

Does this mean scientific findings can’t be trusted? Not at all. It’s not a good idea to have supreme confidence in a single study, but once a model is supported by multiple independent lines of evidence from a large number of studies, it’s a different matter. A large part of our scientific knowledge falls into this category. So, if science tells you (as it does) that the mechanisms proposed by homeopathy don’t make sense and that numerous randomised controlled trials show that homeopathy is no better than a placebo, you can be pretty sure that’s correct. And if science tells you (as it does) that numerous lines of evidence show that the earth is warming and humans are the main cause, then that’s pretty sure to be the case.

The temptation to side with the outsider

Humans have a tendency to sympathise with a maverick who battles against a powerful foe and many promoters of pseudoscience cast themselves in this role. History shows that maverick ideas nearly always end up on the scrap-heap.  They often rely on anecdotal evidence, which settles nothing. If mavericks want their models to be taken seriously, there’s only one thing for it. They need to follow the scientific process, as outlined above.

Of course, mavericks often claim that it’s impossible for them to gain any traction in the scientific community because it’s conspiring against them.  The idea that thousands of scientists collude to prevent ‘unwanted’ discoveries being made public is absurd. Any conspiracy that involves more than a handful of people is certain to be discovered. Conspiracy theories are the last resort of those who can’t produce evidence in support of their ideas.

What about the deeper truths?

It’s fair enough to have the opinion that science can’t address all problems. Most scientists would agree. But to imagine there is some mysterious alternative or better process is just wishful thinking, Every process that makes this claim can actually be reduced to a reliance on faith.

To those who say they have evidence that transcends science I say this: You may have a rudimentary model with some sort of mechanism. If it’s not falsifiable, it’s worthless. If it is falsifiable, it’s worthless without the hard work of testing and finding supporting evidence. It’s just possible that your model is better than the accepted one, but the chances of this are remote. The argument that you must be right because science hasn’t proved you wrong doesn’t hold water. And if you cling to your model when science has examined it and found that it doesn’t stand up, you can’t escape being labelled a denier.

Conclusion

Science is valid because it is tested exhaustively in the real world, its knowledge is public and it doesn’t depend on anyone’s authority. The rigorous evidence and reasoning, the arguments and counterarguments are there for anyone to see. As a way of finding out the truth about the real world, nothing can match it.

Further viewing


Further reading

Why should we place our faith in science? by Jonathan Keith at The Conversation

This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Let’s check the science series.

David McRaney’s quote is from You are Now Less Dumb, Gotham Books, 2013.
The Limits of science cartoon is from Pictorial Theology.
The Economic argument cartoon is from xkcd.
The ‘Can We Trust Scientists?’ video is from ArguingFromIgnorance on YouTube.
Naomi Oreskes’ ‘Why we should trust scientists’ video is from TED.

Updated: 2014/06/28

44 Comments
  1. Are you the author of this piece? If so, I salute you. I’m going to post a link to this on my own WP science blog.

    • Thanks, argylesock. Yes, all my own work (and it took quite a while, I must admit). I’m glad you liked it and I appreciate your linking to it.

      • Wow, yes it must have taken a while to write.

      • Great post! I am a graduate student of paleoanthropology so I hear a lot of illogical creationist stuff from undergrads. It’s nice to hear some sense. P.S. A credit/link for the XKCD comic (“crazy phenomenon” table) might be nice, just so readers who haven’t heard of it before can go enjoy that website’s wonderful content as well 🙂

        • Thanks KL.
          The xkcd comic on this page is hotlinked directly to the source, and there’s also a linked credit at the bottom of the page.

  2. Martin Lack permalink

    Excellent stuff, Graham. Was this (perhaps) inspired by your reading John Christy’s testimony to the US Senate Committee last week? He pretty much said all of the things you list above as being those of the maverick outsider but, whereas this is to be expected from Classics graduates like Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, it is somewhat surprising to hear it from the mouth of a genuine climate scientist…

  3. Reblogged this on THINKING SCI-FI and commented:
    Great article about the authenticity of scientific method

  4. Wonderful post; loved it!!!!!!

  5. I would like to play devil’s advocate for a moment.

    Can we always trust science? Something we take as a scientific constant for years or decades are sometimes proven inaccurate.

    Something simple that was proven through advancement was something taken more on faith like a flat Earth or the Universe revolving around our planet.

    Sometimes it is theory proven inaccurate like the atom is the smallest particle or what scientists think they know about the human body.

    Then there are things we think we know, but do we really? How much can we call fact about the Universe? Stephen Hawking has done numerous studies on black holes, but what we base as fact has no more proof than a Walmart on Jupiter. Until we knock on the door of a black hole with a starship we never know for sure what is going on.

    I don’t question science, but I also don’t always take what is there as infallible. Just like when you were in 2nd grade and the teach told you it was not possible to subtract 3 from 2, a year or two later we learned that was all just a rouse and we had new and harder homework. Not to compare science to math the teaches have yet to taught us, but to liken it to things we just don’t fully understand yet.

    Science is proving us wrong every day at the LHC. Is there a god particle? I think so. Are we traveling faster than the speed of light? yes or very close. Quantum Teleportation? seems so and further every day.

    Sometimes it is perceptual. I remember as a child my father told me our Pentium computer was so big that experts said we could never fill the hard drive, could you live with a 1gig HD these days? Good luck your phone is 16X that.

    I sometimes awe at the sheer science involved in cyberspace alone.

    Imagine what you are looking at right now, a blog with instantaneous communication to anyone around the world at anytime with absolutely no wait time. Go back 50 years, even 20 and try to explain this concept to experts in computer science.

    I don’t question your blog, I just say sometimes science is “invalid” and we don’t yet know it.

    Great post.

    • Thanks for your comment, ObiWanCanubi, but did you actually read the article? It’s difficult for me to believe you did, because you seem to have missed statements such as “Even so, every scientific model remains tentative. There is always the possibility it may be replaced by a better model” and “Science is very competitive and that’s one reason why there are often reversals in scientific knowledge”. I thought I went to great pains to point out that even though science is never certain, and nothing can be “proven” in science, it is still by far the best way we have of finding out about the natural world. I don’t understand what you mean by science being “invalid”. Can you give an example?

      • I was just trying to make a discussion, which is why I prefaced my comment with “let me play devil’s advocate,” (and yes I did read your article)

        I understand you have the same section in the middle, but my point was that even when it changes it is at least accepting of change.

        I did not mean all of science is invalid, I was using the the term science to describe a particular thought or concept in science. Meaning sometimes we believe a particular theory for decades without knowing how much more is beyond it. We have had so many ideas, concepts and theories about how the Universe looks but until we actually touch the stars they are theories, until 2005 we believed as fact that 8 planets orbited the sun. We are super-smart here on Earth, we don’t miss anything… oh what is that? another planet? Name it Eris. But we can’t have 9 planets we have 8. Down grade Pluto to a dwarf, add Eris to a dwarf and we will now maintain that all those science models we made as kids are invalid.

        I admit, I don’t know as much as you do. I am a geek who just loves science and reads stuff I find fun, mostly stuff about the LHC or things written by the hip physicists Lisa Randall and Brian Greene. I don’t pretend I could even teach 4th grade science.

        I use to take science courses in college as electives because I enjoyed them. Every once and a while you would notice the classes had science snobs… similar to the popular kids in high school who looked down on the “normies” who were in their wing at the University. Its all good, I still try to make friends with people and some would open up and let the tattooed guy with the baseball hat on have a discussion and find that he lent something to the conversation. Sometimes he was wrong and they snickered, sometimes they told him the right thing and sometimes I am sure they talked behind his back. That is the course of life sometimes. But every once and a while that really smart one, the one they sometimes called gifted or said was going to be big someday would just keep to themselves and want no one to converse with them because they only wanted to have discussions with people of their level and intelligence. In the future I won’t make the mistake of trying to open a discussion with you, I tried to basket your fragile psychie by book ending my comments first by calling this a “devils advocate” reply and then closing it with “I don’t question your blog” and “great post.” But it still seems I am just that kid in college who is not allowed to have a conversation with the gifted kid.

        In the future, if I read, I won’t make the mistake of discussing your posts I will just say… “Oh thats sooooo right! cool!” “I never looked at it that way.”

        In fact there won’t be an in the future, just won’t read.

        Best wishes in the future, the top is a very lonely place.

        • So it seems to me that what you’re saying, ObiWanCanubi, is that you won’t play if I’m going to disagree with your comments; that I’m a “science snob”; and that I need to be flattered. Is that it?

          You don’t seem to get the idea of science at all. Why not have a look at my Hallmarks of Science series? Science is not about people in authority telling other people what to think. It’s about people developing models, testing them, and discussing the evidence.

    • Martin Lack permalink

      Dear ObiWanCanubi – As indeed Graham is (above), I am more than a little bemused by your apparent hostility to having your comments politely challenged? Rather than talk in riddles, why don’t you explain what (in modern science) you think remains particularly contingent and/or tentative (and why)?

      However, before you do so (and I genuinely hope you will come back and explain yourself more clearly and concisely than you have done so far), please read this:
      http://www.rtcc.org/learning/what-the-higgs-boson-tells-us-about-climate-change-science/

      • I tried to start a constructive discussion, this way the reply by Graham Coghill:
        “ObiWanCanubi, but did you actually read the article? It’s difficult for me to believe you did, because you seem to have missed statements such as:”

        This implies that had I bothered to read Professor Coghill’s article I would not need to make a reply so foolish.

        My first post was never meant to be insulting I was trying to have a creative and off the beaten path discussion about how what we think we know could be just as in-factual as what scientists of 1312 thought was true and guaranteed. I understand that Dr. Coghill had previously made this point, but I wanted to open the discussion on what we could continue to be wrong about and yet to have proven ourselves wrong.

        Sure I admit I am hostile and an ass with my comments, but to have someone take your comment and say, “well had you just read this” is insulting and degrading.

        And no thanks, I will pass on the article. Having one person educate me on how I could be a better science fan today is enough.

      • Martin Lack permalink

        I get a lot of people insulting me very deliberately. If I also chose to take offence at every little bit of sarcasm that came my way, I think I would have to give up blogging.

        I will take your response to indicate that you are not willing to explain why you seem so disproportionately angry about this. I would just like to add how impressed I am with your open-minded attitude to looking at a subject from a variety of perspectives. However, I can’t.

        Bu88er it. More sarcasm. If you go to anger management therapy, I will sign up for “How not to be sarcastic” treatment. Do we have a deal?

  6. Hey, great post!

  7. i think the confusion comes in when people mistake scientific fact with scientific research or theory or hypothesis………….i do not think big bang is a fact….but its a very good theory or hypothesis…it may even be theoretically proved…….its still not yet a recreatable scientific fact……….water will boil at a certain temperature at a certain pressure (all conditions being equal)…..always…anywhere in the universe i speculate……..its recreatable fact…………..i believe we can always trust this true science………….but what is promoted as and what most people believe to be “science” is in fact pseudo science or theoretical scientific hypothesis…….NOT the same thing.

    • Thezombiemessia permalink

      …you are aware that a Scientific Theory is a model that explains the facts, right?

      Atomic Theory, Germ Theory, The Theory of Relativity, The Theory of Evolution, the list goes on…all of them are models that explain the facts.

      The facts behind The Big Bang Theory are numerous:

      “”Einstein’s general theory of relativity implies that the universe cannot be static; it must be either expanding or contracting.

      The more distant a galaxy is, the faster it is receding from us (the Hubble law). This indicates that the universe is expanding. An expanding universe implies that the universe was small and compact in the distant past.

      The big bang model predicts that cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation should appear in all directions, with a blackbody spectrum and temperature about 3 degrees K. We observe an exact blackbody spectrum with a temperature of 2.73 degrees K.

      The CMB is even to about one part in 100,000. There should be a slight unevenness to account for the uneven distribution of matter in the universe today. Such unevenness is observed, and at a predicted amount.

      The big bang predicts the observed abundances of primordial hydrogen, deuterium, helium, and lithium. No other models have been able to do so.

      The big bang predicts that the universe changes through time. Because the speed of light is finite, looking at large distances allows us to look into the past. We see, among other changes, that quasars were more common and stars were bluer when the universe was younger.

      Note that most of these points are not simply observations that fit with the theory; the big bang theory predicted them.””

      Source: http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CE/CE420.html

  8. have you ever seen the look on an astrologists face when you inform him (or her) that the earth actually goes round the sun and not the other way round as their charts suggest?………

  9. @Martin Lack

    I don’t know where you feel I insulted you, this has nothing to do with you. You asked me for an explanation of my disgust and I told you. You say I have not answered your question, whether you have disregarded the 200 word response I have given you or missed it entirely I humbly request you direct your attention above.

    Please if in the future replies don’t feel I am ignoring you this blog is far too hostile and unwelcoming. Please by all means think I have run away or cowered and you have won and drove an idiot away. The victory should improve moral around here.

    • Martin Lack permalink

      I did not say you insulted me. I merely noted that you seem to use feigned indignation to avoid justifying your position. I asked you a very specific question, which you are still avoiding. To make it easy for you, here it is again: “Rather than talk in riddles, why don’t you explain what (in modern science) you think remains particularly contingent and/or tentative (and why)?”

  10. Liked the article.

    What happens when someone assures you of the the reality of their favorite science, like auras? World-famous scientist and radio news commentator, Paul Harvey, listed the 10 greatest inventions of all time, and along with x-rays and penicillin, he had the “Kilner screen”, to which our hypothetical reader would add Kirlian photography. And besides, Einstein proved the validity of homeopathy, as recounted by most of the DHMs on YouTube.

    I can personally assure you of the existence of phlogiston, N-rays, and that the earth is flat. Now I’ll bet those nagging doubts you had have evaporated.

    Keep up the good work.

    • Now that you’ve mentioned auras, I’d like to say that I learned a bit about those recently. Seeing auras is recognised as a symptom of some kinds of dyslexia, autism and epilepsy. Maybe other things too – I haven’t done a proper lit search – but it puts in context the nonsense some people talk about ‘learning to see auras’.

      • That’s intriguing, argylesock. I’d be interested to have some links to what you’ve learned.

        • I’m sorry, my source was casual conversation so not reliable! Goofle or an academic search engine might help.

  11. I was just thinking, don’t most appeals to authority begin with “World-famous scientist” — at least those that don’t begin “Reverend Doctor”?

    • I don’t know that there are any scientists who are world-famous these days. More likely it would be “Doctor X, who appears regularly on Z TV show”, wouldn’t it? Or perhaps “Nobel prize-winning scientist”, which is a bit scary when you think of the prevalence of Nobel disease.

      Thanks for the comments.

      • Thezombiemessia permalink

        Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox, Stephen Hawking, to name a few.

        However, I’d say it’s the media portrayal of science and scientists that leads to people holding the belief that science/scientists are just a big authority that try and tell people what to accept as fact, whereas the scientists themselves often repeatedly point out what you yourself have stated in this very blog.

        It is a shame really, because obviously big stories sell well, and people pick them up easily, but correct understanding of science and the scientific method is percieved as boring or hard to understand.

        During my time studying Journalism at University I had many discussions that ultimately boiled down to people saying “I just don’t think about science all that much, because it’s too complicated for my understanding” and then they’d list of the reasons why they don’t accept Evolution/The Big Bang, or why they do accept Homeopathy, etc.

        Trying to point out to these people that I had no greater scientific understanding than most people, yet I could wrap my head around the fundamentals of the method would often cause them to go quiet, or get defensive…

        • I agree that the media have some culpability there, Thezombiemessia. Not sure about your famous scientists though. Stephen Hawking, perhaps. But don’t you think Richard Dawkins is famous more for his atheism, and I don’t know that many recognise Brian Cox, despite his TV presence.

          • Thezombiemessia permalink

            Famous for being scientists? Probably not, but they are famous scientists.

            Though I’d argue, with regards to fame, it’s a highly subjective matter anyway. I far prefer Dawkins for his science over his philosophy or theological arguments, and I’d rather see all 3 that I named over any “celebrity” that makes the papers nowadays 😀

            But yes, I do see your point. Perhaps Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Richard Feynman? But I’d suppose those guys are only famous among those that actually have an interest in science…

  12. the crystal one is real. its not that they have energy (unless you drop one, of course), but they resonate in predictable and usefull frequencies.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crystal_oscillator

    • In what way do you mean “the crystal one is real”, Pixelfairy? Yes indeed, some crystals are piezoelectric, which means that they will oscillate at certain frequencies when a voltage is applied. This has important applications in electronic circuits. Are you implying that this also gives them the ability to influence human health?

  13. great article…posted it online for my Research Methods students

  14. Great post! Sharing it on my Facebook page.

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