Christopher Essex: Should we trust science?
Naomi Oreskes’s book has been described as a defense of science, but it is nothing of the sort. The cornerstone of her thinking is total consensus determining truth in the natural world. Her approach is a scorched earth epistemology.
Why Trust Science?
By Naomi Oreskes
reviewed by Christopher Essex
1. Science and the Oscars
I write this while my wife is watching the Oscars. The music of professional musicians and overwrought thank-yous drift to me along with the dependably-boring, routinely inappropriate political posturing, and (of course) important personalities from the arts pontificating about the science of climate change. I might be tapping my foot to the beat of their bad ideas if I allowed myself to listen fully. In Hollywood, they already trust science, at least what they think science is. Why do they need reasons from Naomi Oreskes’s new book? Maybe I should ask instead, why trust Hollywood?
There are influential journalists who claim to trust science too. However, simple tests I have performed confirm that most journalists, including some science journalists, know absolutely nothing about science, but they trust it, whatever it is. Similar things can be said for politicians and activists. The latter don’t need reasons because they know everything. For these groups Naomi Oreskes’s new book is as unnecessary as it is for Hollywood celebrities.
Then there are the civilians who do not eagerly discuss Austrian science philosophers on the way through the grocery checkout. There are exceptions, but this still raises the question. What about scientists? That’s a different matter. They (the ones I know well) would not understand the title’s question. It’s more likely that they would ask (if I know my people) why trust Professor Oreskes? It was surely not written for them. So, who then? The surprising answer is found through a different question revealed below.
2. Nullius in Verba or Show Me
So, what’s so hard for a scientist to understand about the title question? There’s science, and trust, and reasons. It seems simple enough. But the root of the problem is that the only clear answer is not a direct answer to the question.
Let me explain. “Science” is a heavily overloaded word. So much so that I take steps to avoid it at times. Its grand vagueness makes it hard to know how to apply the trust question. It cannot be answered without a sensible definition for science. It’s baked into the issue. So, does science include Scientology, or Christian Science? Most would say no. That is the easy part. How about political science? A graduate of a political science program jokes with me about that. What about scientific socialism? It’s easy to say no to that for most, but not all.
Here is a harder one. What about Social Science? Some would fiercely object to even raising that question. But my late sociologist colleague, Ben Singer (crazy systems and Kafka circuits), would definitely say no. Aside from doing side-splitting sociological class analysis of the contents of your shopping cart when encountered in the grocery store, he would never utter Social Science without inserting “so called” in the middle. “Social So-Called Science” was his catch phrase.
Human sociology, also contributes to the bloatedness of the term “science” itself. “Science” can refer to human organizations: universities, research institutes, science societies, science publishers, and governments. They use their organizations to share science, to promote it, and to lobby for funding. Sometimes a few grandees produce a “consensus” on behalf of the others—unscientific, if not undemocratic. This sociopolitical side of science is about how humans organize themselves, not about scientific content around which they organize.
Let’s lay aside the curious matters of who is to trust, and what is to be trusted. There is a more compelling matter. The wording, as it is, seems to make science into a deity. Just substitute “have faith in” for “trust” to see why. A scientific perspective would proceed better from an auxiliary question: should we trust science? The answer to that question is completely straightforward and simple: no!
Why “no”? You’re not supposed to trust science! That’s the point of science! Perhaps that is what makes scientists so strange to ideologues. Dogmatists can’t imagine not trusting their dogmas. The scientific method, if it can be reduced to a catch phrase, is on the license plates of the US state of Missouri: show me. The Royal Society says something similar with “nullius in verba.” But the most excellent version has been attributed to Richard Feynman, “science is a belief in the ignorance of experts.”
If one discards the deity interpretation, while maintaining the question as actually stated, the title asks why trust not-trusting. If you do trust it, do you not-trust trusting too? If so, maybe then you should not-trust not trusting? Maybe you can trust in that, which brings us back to trusting not trusting. This is a dressed-up version of the classical liar paradox: the liar who pronounces he is lying. This is a self-referential paradox, which the late Raymond Smullyan popularized in story puzzles. Such paradoxes extend along a connecting thread all the way to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems.
What a fun title. I love it!
3. An Inhumanist Abroad
Does Professor Oreskes know about the Smullyanism hidden in her title? The author mentions Oreskes’s prior book in this one. It too has a Smullyanism: it doubts doubt. Are these titles meant to just brilliantly draw in people like me? No, because Oreskes answers the auxiliary question (should we trust science?) in the affirmative, avoiding the issue, while opening new ones.
Postmodernism, which the humanities are seriously struggling with, rejects “grand narratives.” Science is the biggest, most successful grand narrative there is. None from the inhumanities, like me, expects a defense of science from the humanities. Yet the author concludes the book with one! That’s unexpected. How can this happen? First, Oreskes (most fashionably) deconstructs something Oreskes regards as science, as per expectations. But then it’s put back together again in a stylish manner for the triumphant conclusion. This is the Oreskesian defense of science.
It requires deconstructing “the scientific method” until there is none. How can there be no scientific method? The idea that there is one is deeply planted in traditional thinking. It is set for most as children in school, assuming they remember. There are even songs about it on Youtube to help teach them. The children’s view is easily pushed aside by a determined academic from the humanities. Some of them tend to think of science as a kind of intellectual rash, needing treatment, that broke out in the 17th century, give or take a century or two. For them, science and its method must be cured through deconstruction.
Thus, the strategy in the book is straightforward up to, but not including its conclusion. Make an historical list of different ideas about the scientific method and take them down one by one until there is nothing left. And so, the list begins with the idea that science is some kind of belief in reliable knowledge provided through the methods of authorities. Can’t have that. Next. Science is verifying empirical evidence. No. Next. Science is about incomplete theories that can be falsified. Fashionable, but not rigorous. Next. But there is no next in the conventional pictures offered.
The author, having let out the air from the tires of science, refills them with a different gas. All of the previous conventional ideas of method focused on individuals, their works emerging to become collective understanding. But the different gas is not about individuals; it is about collectives. A new idea that science is not individualistic is unveiled. The term “thought collectives” is introduced. This is acknowledged as radical, late-20th-century thinking. “Radical” seems a good thing to the author, but skepticism is far too radical. Whatever the philosophical problems in previous incarnations of science, they are solved, by this radicalism that turns science into human sociology. Ben Singer would laugh.
Once science becomes sociology, then surprising things are near to hand—like feminism. The leap in the book from classical ideas about the scientific method to feminism, identity politics, and slogans like “diversity is our strength” is very fashionable in some circles. I could at least follow the strategy that got us to the sociological picture without agreeing, but this last miraculous leap is different. I do not understand it.
It’s also confusing that there is more than one “sociology” in play. There is the understandable and limited sociology of how scientists work together, but there is something far more expansive in Prof. Oreskes’s conclusion: truth is found in the collective instead of the individual. The flaws, which were the basis of the criticisms Prof. Oreskes deployed against epistemological pictures of the past, pale in comparison to the flaws in a view that allows identity politics into the business of scientific truth. They lead to a reductio ad absurdum of “feminist fluid mechanics” and “Jewish physics.” Neither are hypothetical. Both have been realized. One makes scientists laugh; the other makes them weep.
Is there a limiting principle to prevent these absurd outcomes? Prof. Oreskes seems to show some caution by attempting to soften the book’s position with a section entitled, “Caveats.” This is welcome. But the needed limiting principles make no appearance. Neither do they appear in the author’s subsequent remarks, nor in the remarks by the other 6 authors that oddly cohabit this book without cover credit. They are like sharecroppers on some writing plantation. The humanities is a strange place for an inhumanist abroad.
4. Magicians, and Bad Ideas
It’s hard to address point by point the enormity of small and large matters I differ with the author on. Some are peculiar to the author, while others are broader issues within the humanities itself. There is a kind of simplistic approach to the sciences that skews all thinking toward the person rather than the things studied by the person. Natural philosophy is thus overwritten by other philosophical temptations. The text is peppered with discussion about intentions, motives, and criticism of people with bad ideas. Politics and science get spun together in a dizzying manner. This extends into the commentary by the other authors just mentioned.
Not only does this make for peculiar reading, which seems like a sort of ad hominem critique of all scientists, but it misses genuine insights that arise from understanding the technicalities in play. We don’t see how, say, a seemingly crazy idea like path integrals fixed quantum mechanics. From such an example one sees how scientific advances really do trickle in from individuals and not “thought collectives.”
Scientific revolutions are not what the postmoderns would like to imagine either. The best of the old ideas persist; the pesky grand narrative is never fully expunged. Newton’s mechanics is still good, despite quantum mechanics and relativity. It continues in both as a special limiting case. Furthermore, that continuation is no whim but essential. The Earth is still the centre of the Universe, in an Earth-centered reference frame. The Sun and planets still revolve around us. The planets ride on epitrochoids— ellipses transformed to an Earth-centered frame. They are also defined by circles running on circles. Epicycles are close to modern Fourier expansions for functions that the ancients had no knowledge of. Good ideas last: Euclid is still available on Amazon. Science is the long game of the generations.
Bad ideas persist too. The ether persisted in the scientific community long after Einstein’s papers in 1905, lingering afterward well into the 20th century. Prof. Oreskes describes ideas like the caloric theory of heat being on the dust heap of history. What do you think the “heat content of the oceans” is? Caloric is alive and well in the 21st century, courtesy of another bad idea: climate as thermodynamics.
Bad ideas have all of us. They’re easier to spot in others than in yourself. It might be fun to sneer at people and their ideas while letting off steam, but beware that they may be sneering at you for yours. If you imagine you are bad-idea free, I recommend that you go to a magic show to learn a bit of humility. Stage magic only works because of our misunderstandings and misperceptions. There are plenty. Every wonder you see there is a small lesson on how faulty and frail your thinking is about the simplest things. These small lessons will add realism to pontifications on big questions.
5. Stalking Horses and Dental Floss
My cousin is a dentist. She likes to say that you do not need to floss your teeth, except for those you want to keep. I trust her. Why am I talking about dental floss? Prof. Oreskes does in the book. I might argue that the book trivializes things by employing such an example, but Prof. Oreskes states that it’s “a grave public health issue,” and devotes a whole section to it. The argument is that many people get the wrong impression from bad information. Yes, people have bad ideas, and they share them. We must all contend with that. Of course, this is an illustration, but there is a problematic subtext: an Olympian view, gifted to a few, empowers those with it to tell bad ideas from good, while the non-gifted are deserving of contempt and derision for their stupidity. What is worse than foolish self-infallibility acting to inflict bad ideas on others.
The book deals with several topics, along with dental floss, in a chapter called “Science Awry.” One of them concerns the lonely struggle of Alfred Wegener against fashion in science over the matter of continental drift. This would be a counterexample to the “thought collective” idea, but Prof. Oreskes sees it as awry to not welcome a lone radical into the thought collective. Wegener is not alone. I could fill these pages with similar stories about worthy heretical lives not so well known. The idea of a heretic hero in science is iconic for good reason. One of Freeman Dyson’s favorite talking points was that science needs more heresy and heretics. That is the opposite of collective thought.
As to the remaining examples proffered for derailed science, they are so deeply embroiled with contemporary politics and entangled transient social disputes that it’s nearly impossible to tell where overwrought politics ends, and any putative science begins. But after struggling through that thicket, we emerge to find the beating heart of the book’s epistemological fervor: “climate science.”
Climate science is a modern, unprecedented, ad hoc creation of political fashion composed of some legitimate scientific subfields, powerfully induced to follow the exterior agenda of policymakers instead of a common scientific subject matter of its own. If it were collectively a science, then Thomas Kuhn might have described it as pre-paradigmatic, because its only paradigms are borrowed from its subfields. It has none of its own. Its actual scientific problems are deep modern ones, as deep as any in science, despite its classical appearance. Two of the seven, million-dollar Clay Millennium problems pertain to it directly. Some knew this from the beginning, but too few.
6. Escape From Deconstruction
Unlike other deep scientific problems, the public is strongly incentivized to form an opinion on climate change. No one expects everyone to have an opinion about, say, the doppler effect, as someone once observed. Not so for the deeper problem of climate change. Everyone is expected to adopt the correct fashionable opinion—not a scientific one. To solidify this, one must hold that the problem is so straightforward that a child can be taught it in school, while simultaneously maintaining that it is high “knowledge provided through the methods of authorities” so abstruse that it cannot be questioned.
Prof Orsekes is concerned with the latter of these two contradictory propositions. That is behind Oreskes’s signature positions of doubting doubt, and numbers like 97. Much has been invested in arguing that 97% of some people are said to believe in something or other. I am confident that this is true for 97, and for other numbers too. This approach can only work for science if you believe that “knowledge provided through the methods of authorities” is what science is. Since this was the first version of science discarded in the book’s deconstruction of science, it seems to have escaped its execution and doubled back through some secret passage.
I understand now what may have happened. The question is not who but what this book is for. The cornerstone of Prof. Oreskes’s thinking is total consensus determining truth in the natural world. It’s highly problematic, but its issues might perhaps be mitigated with some softening. However, Oreskes’s approach is a scorched earth epistemology instead. If total consensus is to usurp science, then the scientific narrative must be liquidated — so postmodern. This book was described as a defense of science, but it is nothing of the sort. It is a reinvention of science to fit a more stylish narrative — forbidden grand narratives be damned.
In practice the book functions as something to point to when challenged about consensus. Submission to expert thought collectives making pronouncements above question is the opposite of nullius in verba. If not science, what is it then? Perhaps, in an homage to scientific socialism, it might be called “scientific climatism,”
7. Orchestrated Science
Climate science was cobbled together about the same time as it was captured by the founders of the IPCC. Sir John Houghton said that it had to be “orchestrated” for political reasons. And so it has been, growing moribund and ever further from actual science. It is a bad idea, unsuited as an example of normal science. I don’t think that there has ever been anything quite like it in history, but J. Bronowski warned about captured science nearly 50 years ago. He observed that the intellectual leadership of the 20th century was from science and that there is “an age-old conflict” between intellectual leadership and government political power. He concluded,
…that poses a grave problem, because science is also a source of power that walks close to government and that the state wants to harness. But if science allows itself to go that way the beliefs of the twentieth century will fall to pieces in cynicism.”