Apr 24, 2011 | By

Science – Losing Credibility

The following is a comment posted April 24, 2011, (on scientificamerican.com) in reply to a Commentary titled “Trust Me, I’m a Scientist”, in the May 2011 issue of Scientific American by Daniel T. Willingham.

I appreciated the column by Dan Willingham titled “Trust Me, I’m a Scientist”, but felt he undershot the mark on explaining why science seems to have lost so much credibility. He alludes to inadequacies in science education and the problem of specialization, but aims his primary argument at the human tendency to believe what we want to believe.

All true, but the crisis of scientific credibility is, I think, more profound and troubling. When I was a child in the 50’s, science had an inviolable aura as the bringer of truth and progress. In the last several decades, science seems to have lost much of its reputation in the broad sphere of public opinion. Science is routinely embroiled in controversy, scandal and outright fraud – and is now often cast in a negative rather than a positive light.

I see a couple of trends that have helped bring on this crisis. One is specialization – as the expanse of scientific knowledge has increased, the areas of expertise for any one scientist have become increasingly narrow. As you note, this makes science much less accessible to the non-expert, but is also undermines the process of peer review and consensus as each subfield of specialization has fewer qualified experts. The allure of fame and fortune, or even the continuation of grant funding, can tempt some, hopefully very few, to take a few shortcuts or fill in some data. In a few cases, such as the study linking autism and childhood vaccination, an individual is able to perpetrate outright fraud.

A second related trend is complexity. As we learn more in science, the science has become far more complex. As we confront the nature of complexity itself, the ability of science to provide definitive answers is called into question. If we are unable to predict the outcomes of simple cellular automata (e.g. John Conway’s The Game of Life), then what confidence do we really have in the ability of science to analyze and predict outcomes with any precision in complex systems such as the economy, the human brain or the earth’s climate.

The trends towards specialization and complexity are inevitable in the progress of science. If scientists want to remain credible, then they will need to find ways to counteract the examples of bad science and to explain the limits and qualifications that apply to their work. As you point out, improved science education, including a new focus on the history of science, would probably help.

There is another trend in science, however, that has resulted in what I would call self-inflicted wounds. Science has, it seems, been dragged by a few into an increasingly virulent religious debate, as some scientists have vilified religion and a belief in God in the name of science. These claims step well beyond the bounds of “science” (where is the peer review?), but more significantly they antagonize the vast majority of the world that does believe in God, most of whom also believe in science.

Paul Proese (in America’s Four Gods, 2010) notes that “skepticism about the ultimate compatibility of religion and science comes overwhelmingly from the nonreligious community.” He also points out that 95% of American’s believe in God. Do the math – the science-religion debate is not good for science.

Martin Rees, renowned British scientist, was recently awarded the Templeton prize by the John Templeton Foundation which is noted for it’s work to bridge the gaps between science and religion. Mr. Rees is an atheist, albeit a humble one. He was attacked by atheists as a sell-out for accepting the prize, and the Templeton Foundation was attacked for giving it to him. In an April 6, 2011, interview in The Guardian, he said “if you’re teaching Muslim sixth formers in a school and you tell them they cannot have their God and Darwin, there is a risk they will choose God and be lost to science.”

Science can improve it’s image and credibility and one of it’s best hopes is to build bridges with the majority of the religious community that wants to believe in science. The worst thing scientists can do is to remain silent while “science” is hijacked and used as a weapon in the science-religion debate.

3 Responses to “Science – Losing Credibility”

  1. I agree with your points concerning specialisation, complexity and the unwarranted generalisation of ‘scientific’ theories into metaphysical anti-religious ‘truths’.

    I feel there are also other trends that are serving to undermine our trust in the sciences. One is the funding of research by large companies and governments. This has skewed the scientific enterprise.

    Funding and publication are subject to ‘peer review’ which tends to preserve the existing paradigm and the suppression of unwelcome ideas. Large corporations want a return on their investment. (see for example, Angell M (2009) Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption  New York Review of Books Vol 56 available at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22237)

    It is not difficult to see how scientific theories can become metaphysical dogmas
    enforced by the state or instilled into our psyches by propaganda from commercial organisations. 

    • George Gantz says:

      Thank you Michael, that’s an excellent point. I don’t object to the concept of peer review, unless the peers are handpicked to represent a limited point of view. But there is a natural human drive for hegemony, whether in religion or science. This appears to have been some of that going on in physics (for example, see Smolin, “The Trouble With Physics”, or Baggett, “Farewell to Reality”).
      In some of the softer sciences (economics, psychology, nutrition) the hegemonic tendency can be exacerbated by the desire for simple answers to complex problems. For example, we have been dealing with nearly 50 years of a “fat is bad” dogma that has been largely repudiated by science but still firmly dominates the public consciousness as well as public health recommendations. This is exacerbated, of course, by the billions of dollars invested in product design and marketing by businesses trying to capitalize on that dogma, however, in this case, I think the dogma came first and the efforts to capitalize on it came later. There is a lovely chapter in Taube’s book “Good Calories, Bad Calories” that talks about the invention of Crisco – a serendipitous conjunction of a chemistry discovery, a problem disposing of cottonseed oil, the energy of two young entrepreneurs named Procter and Gamble, and a fabulously popular novel “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair that exposed the terrible conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry (including a scene where a worker falls unnoticed into the lard vat). Crisco was a huge and very popular commercial success! The health implications of hydrogenated oils were not studied until quite recently.
      The potentially corrupting influence of money on science is a very different phenomenon. I have not read Angell, but have added that to my reading list. Thanks!

  2. […] improved dialogue with religious communities.  In  fact, as discussed in the earlier ISAS post, Science – Losing Credibility, the scientific community has been losing credibility in recent decades.  We can hope that […]

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