Why Trust Science? Naomi Oreskes et al.

Oreskes, Naomi et al. Why Trust Science? Princeton, 2019. NF;12/19.

This assembly of authoritative essays tackles a monster issue that has been simmering in science academics’ and science philosophers’ esoteric conversations for decades. In the past several years the question of trust in science has exploded into the public arena because of climate change. Even I took a swipe at it in my two books A Bitter Pill (dealing with healthcare science in general) and Forbidden Food (dealing with diet science). Oreskes makes her case for science’s legitimacy in two chapters, and then several other experts give their opinions on what she has had to say, followed by her final “Comment” on their views. The points of view are diverse. I’m not sure how helpful to the cause she advocates Dr. Oreskes’s book will be, but various opinions get a pretty good airing here.

Let me mention the bare credentials of the various authors: Naomi Oreskes is originally a geologist or earth scientist, who has graduated into history and philosophy of science and now teaches at Harvard. She has written several books including a counterattack on science sceptics called Merchants of Doubt. Susan Lindee is another science history and sociology academic. Mark Lange is a philosopher, author of some mathematics- and logic-based discussion of metaphysics including cause and effect. Two Europeans, Ottmar Edenhoffer and Martin Kowarsch, take an economics perspective in analyzing scientific assessments (of climate change in particular) and their effects on public policy. And Jon Krosnick who works at Stanford University comes at the issue from a communication, political science, and psychology perspective. So we have pure science, economics, public policy, philosophy, and even a bit of humanities pretty well covered.

Oreskes admits after reviewing early and more recent history and philosophy of science what might come as a surprise to some people: “it is no longer plausible to hold to the view that there is any singular scientific method.” She goes on to say that the objectivity of scientists depends on the quality of what she calls “transformative interrogation” in the “scientific community”. This she says means that all points of view including feminist, indigenous, African-American, and other minority must be included in a critical examination of scientists’ opinions or findings. I was happy to see her say “(w)hether man-made climate change is underway is a different sort of question from what we should do about it” and also to admit that “scientific consensus is hard to come by.” So now science as seen by one of its most committed fans, is social (!)

Having established that all points of view need to be represented to reach “transformative interrogation” in the community, Dr Orekses lets us know that she and her co-author of Merchants of Doubt “were able to show” that oil industry and libertarian think tanks were opposing the conclusions of climate science, along with “conservative scientists” (italics and quotes mine). I wondered why those “scientists” (as she does call them) would not be included in the breadth of point of view within science she was advocating. “If we know that diversity is beneficial in the commercial workplace, why would we not presume that it would be beneficial in the intellectual workplace as well?” she asks. Could be, I guess, that the commercial and intellectual workplaces are dissimilar in important ways. Some might argue that the benefits of Dr. Oreskes’s type of diversity isn’t always beneficial in the commercial workplace, and that it is in fact already overwhelming in universities.

Granting this very well-respected university and history academic her due, I couldn’t escape a niggling worry that in the intellectual workplaces of Ivy League universities there’s a tendency to accept as “diverse” only ideas that support progressive or social democratic or minority-favouring points of view. I’m also well aware that the scientific community, no matter how inclusive of minorities it may be, always includes only a very select and specifically-socialized group of people.

The assembled experts then each have their say.

Susan Lindee clarifies a hard-to-support distinction often made between science and technology. Our lives are absolutely inseparable from technology, she argues, using the humble example of a bag of frozen peas. Marc Lange puts forward the classic (using a first-century example) argument that establishing trust in any claim is an exercise in question-begging. One always has to rely on an authority: “(i)f you give a reason for trusting in reason, then you have presupposed what you are trying to show. On the other hand, if you give something that is not a reason for trusting in reason, then that is giving no sort of justification at all. The game is rigged.”

Edenhofer and Kowarsch, the economy and public-policy experts, struck me as a bit more realistic. They framed their argument as a form of Pascal’s wager, which we understand to be an analysis of risk in respect of the existence of God. If you believe, the outcome if you are wrong is the same as if you didn’t believe. But if you’re right… Not believing means no pie-in-the-sky either way. They do seem quite realistic about the need to recognize various values and points of view in getting to a consensus on public policy in respect of climate change: “Natural science and technology alone cannot determine appropriate climate policies. Stubbornly insisting on the facts of climate science to counter skepticism just makes environmental controversies worse.” Why hasn’t this kind of argument been made more prominently? Their recommendation is to be honest, logical, and painstaking in dealing with all the values and all the possibilities in respect of policy. Compromise may surprise many: “Left-wing liberals and right-wing conservatives, for example, may still agree about effective carbon pricing.”

The traditional humanities academic Dr Krosnick releases a diatribe on scientific wrongdoing, unavoidable in his opinion since “(m)any scientists want to be famous, to get research grants, to be employed with tenure, to get outside job offers to increase their salaries, to get promoted, to be well paid, to found mega-profitable start-ups, to be respected by their peers, to be respected by non-scientists, and more.” Oreskes in response quotes statistics showing that retractions of scholarly papers and the occurrence of frank scientific fakes are in a tiny minority, less than 1%. But subsequently she describes “facsimile science” or scientific fake news, which is, she says, prevalent and dangerous. I made the same point in my book on diet as Oreskes does when she says, “The greater risk, I believe, is that to the extent that the public learns about (scientific dishonesty) they may come to distrust science generally.”

I don’t know enough about climate science and have to admit I’m afraid to start looking for reliable commentary. I can’t imagine a truly disinterested analysis among all the value-laden noise. I can’t help suspecting that similar shaky assumptions to the ones I see made in health science, epidemiology, also exist in drawing inferences from present and past measurements, and that making reliable predictions about the future will involve educated guesses. But there is an awful lot at stake, much opposition to climate-change-control public policy is powerfully self-interested, middle-aged and older decision-makers understand in their hearts that they will be long gone by the time the Uninhabitable Earth arrives, and the sacrifices to be made are a worldwide and monstrous example of short-term pain for long-term gain that may be questionable and will be enjoyed by somebody else.

Sad to say, I’m afraid Naomi Oreskes, for all her background, knowledge, sincere belief in her work and values, and academic achievement, may be pulling in the wrong direction. Her co-authors Edenhofer and Kowarsch point out that “merely insisting on scientific “facts” or criticizing right-wing policy beliefs and values on an abstract level leads to fruitless ideological controversies.” She and other Cassandras like poor Greta Thunberg may have the gift of prophecy, but sometimes it seems that Apollo has cursed their credibility.

Both content and style vary among the authors in my opinion from quite ordinary to reasonably clear and convincing.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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