To trust in science (ENG)

(Polska wersja)

So far I have only written about my hobbies on this blog. However, there are other topics that I consider very important, such as the value of science and trust in it.

The value of science

Humanity has traveled a long way from hunting mammoths to space flights. However, the pace of our development over the centuries has not been constant. It has accelerated since the seventeenth century, when the first scientific societies, such as the Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, the Royal Society and the French Academy of Sciences were settled.

Academia_Caesarea_Leopoldino-Carolina_Naturae_Curiosorum
Seal of Leopoldina. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Academia_Caesarea_Leopoldino-Carolina_Naturae_Curiosorum.jpg (public domain)

Of course, great scientists have been appearing since much older times, but they usually acted alone. Organized cooperation within scientific societies proved to be much more effective. Thanks to the scientific development, the average human life expectancy is incomparably greater than it was centuries ago, just like our knowledge of the world.

In addition to innumerable inventions, the scientific method is one of the most valuable achievements of the last centuries. To quote Wikipedia, “it involves careful observation, applying rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation. It involves formulating hypotheses, via induction, based on such observations; experimental and measurement-based testing of deductions drawn from the hypotheses; and refinement (or elimination) of the hypotheses based on the experimental findings”.

Hank 1 — kopia
Hank Green talks about the scientific method. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdQreBq6MOY&list=PL8dPuuaLjXtNppY8ZHMPDH5TKK2UpU8Ng&index=15

By the way, if you think I shouldn’t refer to Wikipedia, see what Hank’s brother, John (whom I mentioned some time ago) has to say about it.

The need for specialization

No one can comprehend the entire knowledge obtained by humankind so far. As early as in school, we have to choose subjects we focus on more than on others.

Further education and professional career forces us to narrow the scope of our development even more – for example, a medical graduate can become a surgeon or a dermatologist. The tasks of surgeon and dermatologist vary greatly, so their knowledge and skills must be different, accordingly. We must realize this: each of us can become an expert in up to a few narrowly defined areas. In all other areas, we are ignorant.

Not every kind of knowledge is equally valuable

People learn about the world from various sources: their relatives’ and friends’ stories, the Internet, television, radio, newspapers, and books. These sources are not equally reliable and valuable. Would you let someone whose medical knowledge comes only from TV series perform a surgery on you? Would you have your car repaired by someone who has never done it, but watched a lot of YouTube videos on this topic?

Have you ever come across a false statement? Remember that if your knowledge on given topic comes from television or the Internet, you may be wrong, too.

I believe that most valuable sources of knowledge are university studies, scientific books and scientific articles. You can get some knowledge from other sources, but you will probably not become an expert this way.

To quote “Science on the climate” (so far the book is available only in Polish, so the translation is my own):

“If the scientific method leads to the emergence of some universally accepted theory, then it will certainly be true and will always apply? Of course not – it will apply only until another theory replace or extend it. To overthrow or extend the theory, you also need to use the scientific method. Observations and other verified evidence are needed. Own reflections, beliefs, petitions, articles or videos in the media and the Internet DO NOT have the power to refute scientific theories. Science is not a democracy. Not every opinion should be listened. Only statements verified by the scientific method have value.”

Whom to trust?

Imagine two people, one of whom is a Ph.D. of atmospheric physics (such as Marcin Popkiewicz – I recommend this interview), and the other has a completely different education (or is an anonymous Internet user). Suppose they delivered contradictory statements about climate change. Whom should we agree with? We can examine the arguments of both parties. If we really understand the topic, we can refer these arguments to our knowledge and assess which arguments are valid and which are incorrect. However, if we do not know the physics of the atmosphere, we are unable to verify these arguments. In this situation, instead of analyzing the arguments, it is better to check the qualifications of the people behind the arguments. Who is more likely to be right? No one is infallible and it is possible that despite his knowledge, the scientist is wrong. However, I believe that it is much more probable that this other person, who has not acquired comparable knowledge, is in the wrong. I treat it as a kind of gambling. Metaphorically speaking, I bet on a horse with a better chance of reaching the finish line (the truth).

But what if both sides have comparable education? In that case, I try to estimate which side of the dispute is supported by the majority of the scientific community, for example by looking for the official statements of the most prestigious universities and scientific organizations. Of course, it is possible that the minority is right. However, I believe that it is more likely that the majority is right (remember, I mean the majority of the experts in a given field, not the majority of society!).

How do I apply the above method in practice? Let the subject of climate change be an example. I am not educated in this field. But I can check the views of scientists, such as the Science Advisers of the NASA Global Climate Change or members of the Advisory Board of Environmental Change Institute (interdisciplinary unit of the University of Oxford).

Oxford — kopia
Members of the Advisory Board of Environmental Change Institute. Source: https://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/about/advisory.html

This way, I do not rely on the opinions of anonymous people. I know the names and scientific titles of these scientists. What’s more, I know the institutions that stand behind these people.

In scientific matters, I listen to scientists, not celebrities, politicians or any other people whose statements are not supported by the academic knowledge.

My views are not set in stone. I am inclined to change my mind, if the above-mentioned people and institutions change it, for no theory is eternal.

This method is not infallible. I do not know any better method, though. Does it even exist?

The price of neutrality

Finding a scientific position on specific issues (climate change, vaccines, GMO and many, many others) can be time-consuming. Instead of taking this effort, you can say “I have no opinion on this topic”. However, such neutrality has a high price. The key decisions for our future are not made by scientists, but by politicians, for whom the support of general society is more important than what do scientists say. The more people have a pro-scientific attitude, the greater the chance that decisions will be made based on scientific findings. However, if most people base their views on unscientific sources, or have no opinion at all, our future will be terrible.

If you agree with my reasoning, please share this text. The more people read it, the surer I will be that it was worth writing. But more importantly, by sharing this post, you will support scientific approach.

2 thoughts on “To trust in science (ENG)

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