Why Trust Science?

Part 1 of a series of 5 for NextGen Journal.

What’s wrong with these statements?

  • I believe in global warming.
  • I don’t believe in global warming.
  • We should hear all sides of the climate change debate and decide for ourselves.

Don’t see it? How about these?

  • I believe in photosynthesis.
  • I don’t believe in Newton’s Laws of Motion.
  • We should hear all sides of the quantum mechanics debate and decide for ourselves.

Climate change is a scientific phenomenon, rooted in physics and chemistry. All I did was substitute in other scientific phenomena, and the statements suddenly sounded wacky and irrational.

Perhaps we have become desensitized by people conflating opinion with fact when it comes to climate change. However, the positions of politicians or media outlets do not make the climate system any less of a physical process. Unlike, say, ideology, there is a physical truth out there.

If there is a physical truth, there are also wrong answers and false explanations. In scientific issues, not every “belief” is equally valid.

Of course, the physical truth is elusive, and facts are not always clear-cut. Data requires interpretation and a lot of math. Uncertainty is omnipresent and must be quantified. These processes require training, as nobody is born with all the skills required to be a good scientist. Again, the complex nature of the physical world means that some voices are more important than others.

Does that mean we should blindly accept whatever a scientist says, just because they have a Ph.D.? Of course not. People aren’t perfect, and scientists are no exception.

However, the institution of science has a pretty good system to weed out incorrect or unsupported theories. It involves peer review, and critical thinking, and falsifiability. We can’t completely prove anything right – not one hundred percent – so scientists try really hard to prove a given theory wrong. If they can’t, their confidence in its accuracy goes up. Peter Watts describes this process in more colourful terms: “You put your model out there in the coliseum, and a bunch of guys in white coats kick the s**t out of it. If it’s still alive when the dust clears, your brainchild receives conditional acceptance. It does not get rejected. This time.”

Peer review is an imperfect process, but it’s far better than nothing. Combined with the technical skill and experience of scientists, it makes the words of the scientific community far more trustworthy than the words of a politician or a journalist. That doesn’t mean that science is always right. But, if you had to put your money on it, who would you bet on?

The issue is further complicated by the fact that scientists are rarely unanimous. Often, the issue at question is truly a mystery, and the disagreement is widespread. What causes El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean? Science can’t give us a clear answer yet.

However, sometimes disagreement is restricted to the extreme minority. This is called a consensus. It doesn’t imply unanimity, and it doesn’t mean that the issue is closed, but general confidence in a theory is so high that science accepts it and moves on. Even today, a few researchers will tell you that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, or that secondhand smoke isn’t harmful to your health. But that doesn’t stop medical scientists from studying the finer details of such diseases, or governments from funding programs to help people quit smoking. Science isn’t a majority-rules democracy, but if virtually all scientists have the same position on an issue, they probably have some pretty good reasons.

If science is never certain, and almost never unanimous, what are we supposed to do? How do we choose who to trust? Trusting nobody but yourself would be a poor choice. Chances are, others are more qualified than you, and you don’t hold the entirety of human knowledge in your head. For policy-relevant science, ignoring the issue completely until one side is proven right could also be disastrous. Inaction itself is a policy choice, which we see in some governments’ responses to climate change.

Let’s bring the whole issue down to a more personal level. Imagine you were ill, and twenty well-respected doctors independently examined you and said that surgery was required to save your life. One doctor, however, said that your illness was all in your mind, that you were healthy as a horse. Should you wait in bed until the doctors all agreed? Should you go home to avoid surgery that might be unnecessary? Or should you pay attention to the relative size and credibility of each group, as well as the risks involved, and choose the course of action that would most likely save your life?

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47 thoughts on “Why Trust Science?

  1. Kate, Kudos on an excellent essay. I look forward to reading parts 2 thru 5.

    PS — It’s a darn shame that a Google ad for the Chamber of Commerce’s anti-science website appears immediately below this post.

    Lovely. Luckily, WordPress.com websites such as my own display ads very infrequently. -Kate

  2. I have a problem with:

    “However, sometimes it’s restricted to the extreme minority. This is called a consensus.”

    What ‘it’ is it you’re referring to, here?

    Disagreement among scientists. Thanks for the tip, I’ll make the change. -Kate

    On the subject of second-hand smoking:
    I cannot for the life of me understand how it is that the political will exists to take action on something that has such a tiny potential effect, and yet none exists to take action on global climate disruption. If it’s acceptable to ban smoking in public because it saves lives, why is it not acceptable to ban driving in public (that would save lives, too); or ban coal-fired power stations, or ban forest decimation (currently occurring at a rate of some 150,000 acres per day), or…

    Humans. Bah! Illogical, useless bumpkins. Ban the lot of ’em, and start over.

  3. Nice.

    Quibble: I think El Nino is mechanistically understood quite well, actually. It’s not very predictable, but that’s a different question.

  4. Great post – one issue is that knowledge is never certain. As Feynman said, “Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.” Global warming skeptics and contrarians take that normal uncertainty and exploit it to confuse the public who tend to have a more black and white sense of science and certainty. This is their ploy. In pursuing it, they appear to be arguing for “sound science” when what they really are doing is muddying the waters. Deniers think that by trashing models, they can discount the science. It’s important to point these strategies out along with describing the way science really works..

  5. Thanks so much for your great analysis.

    However now global warming issues are getting to the level of common sense science, increasingly so with droughts and floods and storms and other chaos.

    We no longer apply systematic thinking to alchemy, astrology, flat earth, or the moon made of green cheese. This is not because of science, but because of the long term cultural acceptance.

    However, the long debunked theory of The Open Polar Sea – might now be revived. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Polar_Sea

  6. > Should you wait in bed until the doctors all agreed?

    You leave out the possibility of evaluating the arguments given for yourself, see what makes the most sense. If a doctor just said trust me, while another one gave a reason why the medical consensus is wrong, suddenly the dynamic changes. If I can’t evaluate what the guy is saying, I might look to recommendations from people whose judgment I trust. This example I can see. I know someone who was having pain, that the hospital said there was nothing wrong with him. Then an acupuncturist said Western science cannot understand this, my treatment will help you. He signed up.

    • If I can’t evaluate what the guy is saying, I might look to recommendations from people whose judgment I trust.

      MikeN, what you described is emphatically not “evaluating the arguments given for yourself, see what makes the most sense”. What you describe is merely listening to whichever a message sounds more pleasing to your ears.

      — frank

  7. > If I can’t evaluate what the guy is saying, I might look to recommendations from people whose judgment I trust.

    MikeN, what you described is emphatically not “evaluating the arguments given for yourself, see what makes the most sense”.

    Of course it isn’t, that’s why I put in the ‘can’t’. I think this is why this argument doesn’t work in reality. People are able to pass judgement on some things, and for other things they rely on friends’ judgments, as well as the expert judgments. Simply declaring the science is in, won’t sway too many people’s minds.

    • MikeN, then why do you describe the two in the same breath? Your description mixes

      evaluating the arguments given for yourself, see what makes the most sense

      which is on its face a rational approach, with

      look[ing] to recommendations from people whose judgment I trust

      which is simply looking for someone who says things you want to hear.

      Why did you even bring up the idea of

      evaluating the arguments given for yourself, see what makes the most sense

      if you weren’t actually going to talk about it?

      You now say,

      I think this is why this argument doesn’t work in reality. People are able to pass judgement on some things, and for other things they rely on friends’ judgments, as well as the expert judgments.

      And so do you think that’s an OK thing to do, or not?

      It seems to me you’re trying to defend an irrational decision-making process by cloaking it in ‘rationalist’ and ‘realist’ gobbledygook.

      — frank

  8. [citations needed – many engineers think climate science is weak]

    It seems that you have missed the point of this article. You seem to expect 100% agreement among either climate scientists or doctors. If there is even the slightest bit of disagreement, you will fall back to your own analysis or your friends’ analyses as substitutes for the recommendations of experts. How is that philosophy realistic or useful? -Kate

  9. > If I can’t evaluate what the guy is saying, I might look to
    > recommendations from people whose judgment I trust.

    Do these people you trust cite sources in the scientific literature for these
    recommendations, or do they state beliefs without citations?

    Shorter: do you trust scientists, or blog scientists?

  10. >even the slightest bit of disagreement, you will fall back to your own analysis or your friends’ analyses as substitutes for the recommendations of experts.

    Actually it would be analyses of experts’ analyses. It happens all the time. How do people choose whether to use homepathy, acupuncture, etc? How do they choose what type of diet to partake?

    • MikeN:

      Actually it would be analyses of experts’ analyses. It happens all the time.

      You keep bleating ‘it happens all the time’, ‘it happens all the time’, ‘it happens all the time’, …

      The real question, which you repeatedly dodge is this: but is it the correct thing to do?

      As long as you keep dodging this question, I’ll have to assume that you’re trying your very best to defend a patently irrational method of decision making.

      — frank

  11. Perhaps it is irrational. However, the point is that the appeals to authority, just talking back more swiftly, etc, are all tackling the wrong problem.

    • MikeN:

      Perhaps it is irrational. However, the point is that the appeals to authority, just talking back more swiftly, etc, are all tackling the wrong problem.

      Your reply makes no sense. How is it any less an “appeal to authority” to simply say, ‘ooh, gorebull warming is a scay-um because my friend says that Andrew Bolt says that Marc Morano says so!’

      Hint: if you simply believe whatever your friend says Bolt says Morano says about global warming, then you’re treating your friend and Bolt and Morano as authorities on the matter.

      So the question now is, since you’re going to have to take someone’s word on global warming either way, will you choose to believe

      (1) the words of the entire worldwide community of people who have actually studied the problem up close, or

      (2) the words of a bunch of random dudes whom your friends happen to like?

      As Hank Roberts asks, do you trust scientists, or blog scientists? Do you treat scientists as an authority, or do you treat blog scientists as an authority?

      MikeN answered that question, but attempted to smear someone’s reputation in the process, and so it was deleted as per the comment policy. -Kate

      — frank

  12. MikeN:

    I believe it would be useful to step aside from climate change for a brief period. Consider the objections to the fact that men landed on the Moon on 20 July 1969 and five times after that, and all came back safely. The objections can be dispensed with if the objectors will do a little digging, or if they listen to replies to their online questions. It’s not enough to say, “Men did land on the Moon because X…” The objections are varied, and dealing with them adequately requires extended discussion. I’ve been involved in such discussions, and it gets tiresome debunking the same wrong ideas over and over. That’s why there are now FAQs to rebut the Moon Landing Hoax.

    It’s the same with climate change. The Web is full of evidence on the various aspects of the science. Two good examples are SkepticalScience and RealClimate. I think your concern is that you’ve had people tell you, in essence, “climate change is real, and that’s that.” You’re right: that’s not going to resolve any doubts. But my own frequent experience is that I spend some time giving a detailed answer, only to be flatly told it’s bunk. Or, I provide a link to a site like SkepticalScience, and the reply is that it’s biased.

    Bottom line: Some people who ask questions are interested in the answers. Others are just out to stir up trouble and confuse the issue. If you’re the former type, it would pay you to look up the sites I mentioned.

    • Chris Winter:

      It seems MikeN was focusing on the case where one can’t — or doesn’t want to — actually evaluate the evidence regarding climate science. In that case, the problem does boil to which bunch of people you’re going to believe — whether to believe practising scientists, or random dudes.

      (But seriously, many of the ‘skeptic’ ‘arguments’ are so easy to evaluate and debunk, that one has to be filled to the brim with negative intelligence in order not to see how nonsensical the ‘arguments’ are. Heck, there are people believing the “global warming is a hoax because it violates the US Constitution!” line…)

      — frank

  13. Somewhat unrelated: The Age cartoonist John Spooner caricatures a scientific paper, based not on what the paper says, but what commentator Andrew Bolt thinks it says.

    So, not only do some people not trust scientists, but they don’t even know what the scientists are actually saying or doing when they mistrust them. Essentially they get their information on the scientists’ words or deeds by second-hand or third-hand or even fourth-hand means.

    Perhaps a subject for another blog post?

    — frank

  14. >then you’re treating your friend and Bolt and Morano as authorities on the matter.

    Yea, that’s about how it works. Each person applies different levels of credibility to various people. And others treat me as an authority on the matter. Many people will have people in there circle who are not climate scientists, but who look into the issue more than themselves.

    Chris Winter, that is an interesting analogy. Now if I had someone whose judgment I respected tell me the moon landing is a fake, that would be weird.

    • MikeN:

      Many people will have people in there circle who are not climate scientists, but who look into the issue more than themselves.

      Dude, climate scientists are the ones who are actually directly studying climate change. Again, the question is simple: will you choose to believe

      (1) the words of the entire worldwide community of people who have actually studied the problem up close, or

      (2) the words of a bunch of random dudes whom your friends happen to like?

      — frank

  15. As we all know that this part of science is still at rudimentary stage, of course scientists have done much trying to understand it. there is much to do to get confidence in it. I don’t know why guys out there think too much about the analysis of what others are thinking of it, instead of working towards it- skeptics, deniers and supporters, etc..

    It is the time to improve understanding of science, not to analyze….. we have not come to that stage… if we get that stage there will be no using of the word “consensus”….

    thank you

    • I don’t see how “scientific understanding” can be fostered by listening to random dudes spewing talking points about “UN One World Government” which they culled from somewhere.

      If you want to understand the science, you talk and listen to people who’ve actually studied the climate. That is to say, climate scientists. Not some random bloke who parrots talking points from Marc Morano.

      — frank

      • If people understood well then why have we been listening equivocal opinions? Yes, we have to listen to what they have done-just that they have done, because as far as I know, a single person can’t know a total of such a complex climate system. But, people out there give their opinions, even world class climate scientists, hope I need not to mention. Sometimes they are giving the proofs. I don’t know how and where they got the proofs for both ways…..you and I have to understand this.

        As a student of climate science, I believe scientific journals with a little skepticism, because of the state of the science. But, I am sure, some day will come up with robust proofs. But, that day will come very soon, if scientific community go faster towards understanding it better. What do you say!

        We can neither convince totally ignorant people nor fully understood ones… but uncertainty will come with mediocre knowledge, of course….. we can’t fully understand, even eventually….

        Thank you

        kishore

      • The issue is very simple: if you want to understand the state of climate science, do you ask the people who are actually studying the climate up close — i.e. climate scientists — or do you instead ask some random dude who parrots talking points from Marc Morano?

        Do you trust scientists, or blog scientists?

        That is the issue.

        — frank

  16. Speaking of uncertainty…

    Can a Candid Climate Modeler Convince Contrarians?

    Intrepid British climate scientist sets out to win over global warming doubters

    By Jeremy Lovell and ClimateWire | July 19, 2011 |

    LONDON — David Stainforth is a brave man. His mission is to try to remove some of the confusion over the climate debate by explaining why uncertainty has to be a part of the computerized climate models that scientists use to forecast the expected impacts of climate change, including more violent storms as well as more flooding and droughts.

    Stainforth, a climate modeler and senior research fellow at the London School of Economics, hopes that by coming clean on the degree of difficulty in making such predictions, he and his fellow climate scientists will find it easier to make — and win — the argument that prompt action now is not only necessary but the far cheaper alternative to inaction.

    To read the entire article, go to:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=can-candid-climate-modeler-convince-contrarians&WT.mc_id=SA_DD_20110719

  17. ***Peter Watts describes this process in more colourful terms: “You put your model out there in the coliseum, and a bunch of guys in white coats kick the s**t out of it. If it’s still alive when the dust clears, your brainchild receives conditional acceptance. It does not get rejected. This time.”***

    It can be difficult to do kicking if the writer has not archived all the data and code.

  18. Good post.
    I have an answer for your question, “What’s wrong with these statements?”

    The substituted scientific areas in your second set of statements have a universal definition. Photosynthesis has a specific definition. Newton’s laws are specific statements. Whether a scientist or a non-scientist, we all approach these definitions in generally the same way.

    As is visible in this comment thread and in any debate on climate change, however, there is no one standard definition. A climate scientist will have a different definition than an ecologist, or perhaps a geologist. Non-scientists will have their own definition of climate change.

    When a person says “I don’t believe in climate change” what is it they don’t agree with? Do they refer to human-induced climate change? Do they refer to the weather? Do they refer to the last 100 years? 1200 years? 1.2 billion years?

    The definition of climate itself is different things to different groups of people. And, as Mike Hulme expresses very eloquently in his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, this is one of the reasons why we disagree on climate change.

    From your writing, I would infer that your definition of climate change in this context is similar to mine. When I use the term climate change, I am generally referring to abnormalities in the physical climate caused by anthropogenic activity. In this context, the “I believe” is a moot point, because the evidence is there, whether you believe it or not. This is a positivist approach, a natural science approach. In a positivist approach, there is no validity to a “belief.”

    Using the phrase “I believe” is taking a concept and then applying your own value and bias filters to it. So, if someone says to me, “Do you believe in climate change?” Then I say it isn’t something to be believed in, but is something that exists. You can choose to agree or disagree with its existence, but your position has no effect on reality.

    To people who do use that phrase, it is a different matter. They are placing their own definition of “climate change” into their worldview. Does the concept of climate, good, bad, stable, exist outside our own perception?

    If, in your worldview, cultural values teach you that humans can’t possibly have an effect on nature so large, that is the realm of the gods, then this belief will conflict with scientific evidence. This doesn’t make their belief invalid. Nor should we belittle it. You’re unlikely to change their worldview, but you can then adapt your approach to align with their values and concerns.

    If someone says, “I don’t believe in climate change,” it is not my approach to say, “but you’re wrong and here’s why.” It’s my approach to find out what their definition and worldview are. A little effort into using social science will help all of us working in climate change fields may go a long way to changing minds.

    • Abby:

      If someone says, “I don’t believe in climate change,” it is not my approach to say, “but you’re wrong and here’s why.” It’s my approach to find out what their definition and worldview are. A little effort into using social science will help all of us working in climate change fields may go a long way to changing minds.

      That sounds like just another name for pathological compromise at the expense of everything, including evidence, science, and logic — a tactic which has been tried again and again, and failed again and again.

      The thing is, as far as I can tell, there’s no underlying coherent worldview behind inactivism. There’s no actual “cultural value”, no moral compass, no proper epistemology, I see behind the inactivist movement other than ‘oppose everything the IPCC says using every excuse oh and destroy all liberals’.

      For what else can explain why inactivists are so adamant about defending or downplaying death threats and rape threats against climate scientists and their families?

      I suspect that inactivism, when you drill right down to it, is merely a knee-jerk response to a need for change. ‘Waah, I don’t want to change, I want to do things the way I’ve always done them,’ they think. And so they cling on to every flimsy excuse they can find to do things as before.

      Saying repeatedly, “You’re wrong, and you’re still wrong, and if you continue to be wrong, you’ll be wrong as wrong can be” does seem to be the correct way to go.

      — frank

  19. Frank:
    **did you get that factoid about code and data from an actual scientist, or from some random dude?**
    Why does it matter? There are brilliant researchers in many fields.

    • Gerald Machnee:

      did you get that factoid about code and data from an actual scientist, or from some random dude?

      Why does it matter? There are brilliant researchers in many fields.So you admit that, when you said climate scientists have somehow “not archived all the data and code”, you were getting that factoid not from an actual practitioner of climate science, but from some random dude?

      And you claim that what you do is OK because “there are brilliant researchers in many fields”, as if that makes any logical sense?

      I get my information from relevant, reputable, reliable sources — not from random dudes whom I happen to like. Why won’t you do the same?

      — frank

  20. Frank:
    ***And you claim that what you do is OK because “there are brilliant researchers in many fields”, as if that makes any logical sense?

    I get my information from relevant, reputable, reliable sources — not from random dudes whom I happen to like. Why won’t you do the same?***

    Unfortunately, you are under the mistaken impression that “climate scientists” are the only reliable source of information. I am familiar with reliable scientists in a variety of fields.

    • Gerald Machnee:

      I get my information from relevant, reputable, reliable sources — not from random dudes whom I happen to like. Why won’t you do the same?

      Unfortunately, you are under the mistaken impression that “climate scientists” are the only reliable source of information. I am familiar with reliable scientists in a variety of fields.

      Then why did you hem and haw when I asked you where you got your information that climate scientists had “not archived all the data and code” necessary regarding their studies?

      Why couldn’t you name your sources and explain why you think they’re relevant, reputable, and reliable?

      It sure does looks like you’re getting your science information not from reliable sources, but from random dudes. And that’s clearly a dumb thing to do.

      — frank

    • I don’t know badgersouth. When climate scientists and their families are getting death threats and rape threats, I don’t see much value in being accommodating to people who keep spreading misinformation about the scientists’ work (or in being accommodating to people who, well, advocate being accommodating).

      Surely you agree that rejecting a scientific consensus on climate change — which is based on thousands of lines of evidence obtained by the entire worldwide community of climate scientists — is something that simply defies all logic and sense. How can one start a reasonable discussion when one of the starting points is a position that’s patently unreasonable?

      That’s why I think sometimes we do need to put our feet down and say, in no uncertain terms, “This is utter nonsense!” And this is what I’m doing — that’s all.

      — frank

  21. Frank:

    It appers to me that everyone who has posted comments on this thread believes in what scientists are telling us about manmade climate change, Where they seem to differ with you is on how to effectively communicate that body of knowledge to the general public.

    I beg to differ. You have not read the comments, by some of the people on this thread, that violated the comment policy due to inflammatory statements or lack of citations. Over the months, it has become clear that some of them do not believe what scientists are telling us about manmade climate change! You are simply seeing their most moderate and reasonable input. -Kate

    • badgersouth: Thanks. I think that, while it’s OK to start from the assumption that a certain ‘skeptic’ is a reasonable person at heart who may just be slightly misinformed, it’s not OK to persist in the assumption when it’s clear the ‘skeptic’ is just being obstinate.

      — frank

  22. “… some of them do not believe what scientists are telling us about manmade climate change! …”

    Um.. gosh Kate, you are supremely gracious and polite to engage with people who do not listen to science. Nor care to listen. Some prefer to disrupt or delay. It is OK to ignore people like that.

    A nice saying often applies: “There is a difference between fishing and just standing by the water with a pole in your hands”

    In climate science blogging, sometimes it is hard to remember the goal. I like to see you doing science, and communicating science.

  23. Frank:
    **Then why did you hem and haw when I asked you where you got your information that climate scientists had “not archived all the data and code” necessary regarding their studies?

    Why couldn’t you name your sources and explain why you think they’re relevant, reputable, and reliable?**

    My comment was that data and code are not archived properly. You deflected the discussion by calling down anyone other than climate scientists “random dudes”.
    Do you want to discuss missing code and data or call down people?

    • Gerald Machnee:

      My comment was that data and code are not archived properly.

      And I’m asking you precisely where you got that information from.

      So Gerald, I ask again, from where did you get your information that climate scientists had “not archived all the data and code” necessary regarding their studies? Did you get that ‘fact’ from people wearing nice suits? Or your favourite TV shock jock? Or your dog?

      You can dodge and weave all you want, but it’s clear by now that you just want to malign climate scientists by spreading misinformation, without allowing people to check the sources of your (mis)information.

      — frank

      • To add to my above comment:

        What’s more, Gerald, you have not given a single word of explanation as to why your preferred sources of ‘information’ about climate science are somehow more reliable or relevant than the climate scientists themselves. Not a single word.

        Why do you persist in spreading lies and misinformation about climate scientists and their work?

        — frank

        Gerald just replied with lots of links to Climate Audit, mentions of FOI request campaigns, and attempted smears to a a respected scientist’s reputation. His source of information seems to be Steve McIntyre alone. Personally, I think we should let this fairly predictable conversation drop, but reply if you wish. -Kate

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