Philip Kitcher: What Makes Science Trustworthy?

Philip Kitcher in the Boston Review:

Why ask “Why trust science?” When many people worry about the safety of genetically modified food, parents resist the advice of pediatricians to vaccinate their children against common childhood diseases, religious people still say they take the earth to be fewer than 10,000 years old, and the president of the United States declares climate change to be a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, public trust in scientific research would seem to be in dire straits. The time is ripe for reassurance. Even to pose the question indicates that something has gone wrong.

The first thing to say, though, is that not all these failures of trust are equally significant. Doubts about the scientific consensus on the history of life on Earth, for example, are not especially troubling in themselves. It would be better, no doubt, if schoolchildren learned how geological evidence expanded the timescale of planetary history half a century before Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Yet even if scientific education fails in these respects, it is not one of the world’s greatest tragedies; for much of everyday life, behaving as if the world were only a few thousand years old makes little difference. Failure to act to mitigate the effects of climate change is another matter entirely.

More here.