Why have we lost faith in science?

by Thomas R. Wells

Antiscience9llScience is an essential part of modern civilisation. It has cast religious metaphysics out of the natural world. It has supported the development of technologies that allow more people to live better and longer lives than ever before. It provides the empirical foundation on which the ideal of democratic deliberation rests, a division of labour in which specialists pursue facts so that society as a whole can pursue values. Moreover, as an industry science is thriving, with around 7 million professional scientists working with hundreds of billions of dollars of funding from governments, corporations and other institutions.

And yet despite dominating the modern world, the authority of science has declined. The general public are losing faith in its relevance to our lives, and are increasingly distrustful of its specific claims. This attitude is regrettable but not entirely unreasonable. Scientists have long claimed the status of public servants but exhibit little interest in living up to that role, for example by investigating boring but deadly diseases. Furthermore, science as an industry – Big Science – is entwined with power and money. That undermines the credibility of scientific pronouncements on politically contentious issues such as GM crops or climate change.

I. Scientific significance is not the same as social significance

It seems easy to agree that the goal of science is to discover important truths about how the real world works. The difficulty comes in deciding what counts as important; and, more immediately, whose opinion counts in making that decision: Scientists themselves? Their funders? Politicians? The people?

On the one hand scientists generally present themselves as public servants, like medical doctors. Many of them are even officially government employees. Yet they often seem to understand themselves as trustees of a grand intergenerational civilisational project – of contributing to the public good of understanding the world – rather than as regular employees. That is, they consider themselves entitled to use their own judgement to determine which scientific problems to pursue, and these may often be different from those that the wider society considers a priority. Indeed, how could it be otherwise given the asymmetry of expertise – only scientists can direct science since only they know what they are doing. Just as medical doctors, scientists are that special kind of expert who tell you what it is you need and then offer to sell it to you.

Scientists operate as members of self-directing epistemic communities. But the values that arise in such communities may lead to research questions that diverge substantially from what ordinary people are concerned about. In particular, the pursuit of status within an epistemic community means gaining the respect of one's peers by making contributions that they can appreciate. What counts as significant research is thereby largely determined by what your peers are working on, what they will find interesting and 'upvote' in the form of citations.

There are many branches in the tree of knowledge, many paths that might pay off. But academics of any particular field tend to cluster together on one branch, whether that be string theory in theoretical physics or general equilibrium theory in economics, simply because that is where everyone else is and those are the people they need to impress.

Of course it is possible that the branch everyone is sitting on will turn out to be the right one. But because the dynamic that led to that concentration of research is driven by social mechanisms at least as much as objective truth seeking methods and values, it seems more likely that the branch will turn out to be a dead end. But that's not the main problem – the history of science is a history of (learning from) failure. The problem is that the narrow range of questions to which the scientific apparatus is brought to bear are not the questions the general public, who are paying for most of this, are interested in. As economists blind-sided by the financial crisis protested, 'Why are you blaming us? We study economics not the economy'.

So the 'accountability problem' is that while this largely publicly funded complex ecosystem of science may provide jobs, status, and meaningful lives to those who work in it, it's not clear what they are doing for the rest of us. Even if the contradictory claims of different sub-disciplines (such as quantum 'micro' physics and Einsteinian 'macro' physics) could be reconciled and we could have some assurance that science was progressing, so what? Truth is not sufficient for significance. (Note that this applies across academia – Not all philosophers are equal.)

The kinds of questions that people think are important are quite different from those that a scientific community may glom onto. What are those questions? People expect practical knowledge from the scientific enterprise. Often this concerns assisting decision making in one's personal life: we want to know how the world we live in works. When is it too late to have children, for example, or what causes autism, and what can I do to prevent my child from developing it? Is it safe to drink tapwater these days? (Just because it passes tests designed decades ago is not necessarily reassuring given all the new kinds of pollutants that end up in it.)

We also expect science to directly improve our lives by extending our powers of intervening in it. Take medicine. One can divide medical problems into three categories, the ones that are diagnosable and treatable, the ones that are not diagnosable (except as somehow 'psychological'), and the ones that are diagnosable but pretty much untreatable (such as terminal cancers, but also the flu). The general public expect science to make progress on raising the proportion of medical problems that can be successfully diagnosed and treated. They have the distinct impression that this is not the biomedical research industry's main concern. This is not only the result of cynicism – e.g. that the commercial interests of biomedical companies lie in turning us into lifelong consumers of endless expensivetreatments, not providing a 10 cent pill that will cure us. One can also wonder at their methods. For example, why is quite so much effort is invested in experiments on mice when mice are nothing like humans. The answer seems to be that mice are a convenient model for experimentation and everyone else uses them.

Finally there is the contribution of science to public deliberation. Science has the potential to resolve the factual dimension of many moral and political debates as well as to support sensible policy (on which more below). In some cases, such as climate change, this works reasonably well (despite areas of remaining uncertainty in physical feedback mechanisms and especially the social scientific analysis of policy). Climate scientists present a virtually unanimous case for a human species level threat. That we aren't taking that seriously enough is our fault, not theirs. But there are many other public policy debates that would benefit from a better factual basis and yet don't seem to interest scientists. For example, does pornography make men into rapists, as some feminists claim? Is it safe to inject high doses of hormones and antibiotics into livestock? What are the real costs and benefits of recreational drugs? Should we have austerity or stimulus in this kind of recession? Research on such questions is fragmentary at best, and hardly usable by the general public.

Without the kind of objective understanding that science is supposed to provide, we are left to make up our minds about such significant issues of public – political – debate on the basis of ideology and anecdata (i.e. anecdotal information and intuitions). If scientists are really the public servants and professionals about objective truths they claim to be, we should be able to simply look up the facts about contentious issues rather than have to try to make up our own minds about things we know nothing about.

II. The Politicisation of Science

The failure of science to live up to its public responsibilities is one thing. But the credibility of science is at stake as well as its relevance. Scientific methods are supposed to be objective – the core idea is reproducibility after all – but increasing numbers of people consider its pronouncements as mere opinions, or even propaganda. More specifically, one finds that many people these days claim to believe in scientific methods in principle, but doubt that they are being properly applied in the particular cases they have an opinion about.

This is a great failure. Science is supposed to be not merely persuasive, like a lawyer's arguments or a politician's promises, but utterly convincing (a word originating in the Latin for overcome/conquer). For example, by allowing anyone to witness for themselves the truth of its claims by reconstructing the experiment that produced them, the scientific method provides a new level of certainty about facts beyond whether or not we find them agreeable. Hence the motto of the Royal Society Nullius in verba (Take no one's word for it). That has enabled scientists to advance extremely counter-intuitive claims about how the world really works, such as Darwin's account of evolution. The hope once was that science might address the brute fact of way of reasonable disagreement that animates and limits our politics, and in a better way than oppressing intellectual dissenters or merely counting them.

That hope has long died. Modern science is too complicated – too specialised – for ordinary people, or even the wrong kind of specialist, to test its claims. One needs PhD level training to be able to follow the recipes, as well as access to expensive equipment and unusual substances like embryonic stem cells. So much of the result is produced by the elaborate protocols and specially constructed lab equipment that even when an experimental result can't be reproduced one can never be quite sure whether the error was in the claim or in how one tried to test it. From the perspective of the public, modern science is experienced as a set of pronouncements by self-declared experts. The special authority of science has evaporated: we are left having to judge for ourselves whether to take scientists at their word.

It turns out that we judge the credibility of scientists and their institutions the same way we judge anyone else trying to tell us things. If it goes against what we already think we know, or against treasured values, or if it comes from someone in the wrong political tribe, we don't believe it.

As an industry Big Science requires vast amounts of money, and that money generally comes from either governments or profit-making corporations. It is not only obvious, but also a scientifically established fact, that researchers have a statistically unlikely tendency to find results desired by their funders. Given that we are not in a position to assess the scientific claims presented in defence of MMR vaccines and fluoride in drinking water, it is not so very ridiculous to assess the interests of those conducting or paying for the research instead. There may even be a political pattern. Those from the political right, with their ideological suspicion of right government, seem especially likely to disbelieve counter-intuitive claims that come from government funded science, such as climate change. Those on the left tend to have a greater faith in Big Government but a greater suspicion of Big Business. They seem to be especially skeptical of claims from commercially funded science, such as pharmaceutical companies or Monsanto.

Of course science faces other problems too, but these seem to me to be especially challenging. Unfortunately, the obvious if imperfect means for addressing the first problem (of scientists' lack of social accountability) is for governments to direct funding to research projects that they determine are in the public interest, even if that means overruling scientists' judgement about how to do science properly. Yet this would only magnify the second problem (of the politicisation of science), by alienating a large part of the public, as well as political parties that sometimes control the government! Since citizens, especially of a democracy, readily distinguish between the public interest and the interests of governing parties, it should not be surprising that to the extent that science is associated with government, it will lose its standing as a genuinely public truth-telling institution.