How to build trust in science after the pandemic

Science proceeds not as a single truth or set of truths, but as a method; it is not a body of knowledge, but a process for developing more reliable knowledge

By Nicholas B Dirks

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Published: Mon 29 Aug 2022, 10:51 PM

In recent years, and especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, attacks on science and scientists have been escalating to an alarming degree. Health officials and the broader scientific community have pleaded with policymakers and the public to “follow the science.” Yet such slogans fall flat with those who have little regard for scientific authority, not least because science proponents have been using the same blanket term as those who attack it.

When we encapsulate all of science within a single word, we implicitly equate it with truth. In fact, many fields of science are still undergoing constant revision. The importance of this distinction became all too clear during the early stages of the pandemic, when health authorities were charged with providing guidance to the public before all the details about the virus were known.

Science has always come under attack. From Galileo’s demonstration that the Earth is not at the centre of the universe to Darwin’s argument that human beings descended from earlier apes, scientists were long seen as a threat to religious authority and its own claims of true knowledge.

One might have thought that modernity would have finally given science a decisive advantage, leading inexorably to more general acceptance of its findings. But a constantly evolving process is not a sure-footed competitor to those trafficking in timeless absolutes. And though it may feel counter-intuitive, scientists themselves should resist the popular characterization of science as a body of knowledge.

In his 2019 book, The Crisis of Expertise, sociologist Gil Eyal argues that the appeal to “science” and the moral panic about the “assault on science” are beside the point, because not all of “science” is in fact under assault. No one, for example, “disputes quantum mechanics, nor, for that matter, is any solid-state physics discipline under assault.” Indeed, most of science is widely seen as “settled,” whether formally in terms of fundamental theories and understandings, or informally in the sense that most people assume that planes can fly, gravity is real, and hydrogen peroxide can bleach your hair.

And yet, while most people trust medical professionals with everything from their annual check-ups to their cancer therapies, they also subscribe to a wide range of idiosyncratic notions about health, pharmaceuticals, and medical procedures. What the science journalist Michael Specter calls “denialism” is reflected in a broad array of biomedical issues, from fear of vaccines to belief in the effectiveness of nutritional supplements and, sometimes, miracle cures.

Eyal points out that most debates around science concern “what is called ‘regulatory science’ and ‘policy science,’ a collection of sub-disciplines, research programs, and techniques that have in common the need to arrive at a policy recommendation.” These debates tend to reach a fever pitch when there are contentious public-policy issues that are inextricably bound up with ongoing science – as in the case of vaccine mandates, masks, drug approvals, and decarbonization (which entails massive allocations – or reallocations – of resources).

In all these cases, the peril arises after the experts have made their views known. When the process moves into realms beyond the purely scientific – legal disputes, public policy, even electoral politics – trouble frequently ensues. If expertise is seen to be associated with one side in legal proceedings, political debates, and cultural questions (such as diet and lifestyle), that perception tends to undermine rather than buttress the authority of science and scientists more generally.

The dilemma is that the scientific fields most relevant to policy debates are in a constant state of testing, revision, and debate by scientists themselves. But that is exactly how it should be. As the philosopher John Dewey argued in the early twentieth century, science proceeds not as a single truth or set of truths, but as a method; it is not a body of knowledge, but a process for developing more reliable knowledge. This focus on method is meant to ensure that scientific research and discovery proceeds in a rigorous and transparent fashion. The distilled version of the scientific method taught in grade school hardly captures the wide range of ways that scientists practice their disciplines and test their hypotheses.

As important as it is to ensure that science advances methodically, we must also not lose sight of the possibilities opened up by thinking outside the box. Historically, we owe some of the most important scientific discoveries to the imaginative brilliance of visionaries such as Galileo, Darwin, Albert Einstein, James Watson and Francis Crick, and Jennifer Doudna (the 2020 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on genome editing).

Just as good science requires a balance between creativity and method, so, too, building trust in science requires scientists and their public advocates to communicate their findings and processes more effectively. That includes being open about the uncertainties – and serendipities – that are inherent to scientific discovery, and drawing clear distinctions between what is and is not considered settled science.

We must accept, and impress upon the public, that science owes its greatest achievements not only to its perpetual expansion into new frontiers, but also to its abiding humility. Otherwise, the public will continue to be disappointed – and disillusioned – by many types of scientific claims. - Nicholas B. Dirks, a former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, is President and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences. - Project Syndicate

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