The opinions stated here are my own, not those of my company.
“Believe in science!” “Trust the science!” “I stan Dr. Fauci!”
These are phrases that have been shouted by people over the past year, under the very real fear of a deadly pandemic. Yet despite their motivations, their result is not good for advancing scientific literacy or development.
Look, I get it. Faith is an important part of one’s life. I’m Catholic, so I’m not trying to diminish the value of one’s spiritual journey. And I realize that people are becoming less religiously affiliated.
Science should not be seen as a replacement for faith. It’s not something we should be taking on faith, or belief. It’s meant to be about uncovering fundamental truths about our universe and ourselves. While that may seem a lot like religion, science is not about fulfilling the spiritual sense of our lives but the physical aspect.
And that’s okay! We should not expect the scope of science to grow indefinitely, and other institutions already exist to fill in the gaps in our spiritual fulfillment.
Science is not meant to give us a definitive canon of what we should believe. It's designed to scrutinize our understanding. Science should overturn things that are not true, and reinforce theories with more data and evidence. But, and this is important, it is always going to do this. Our understanding of the world will constantly be overturned and religitated, and that’s intentional. Unlike faith, the scientific canon today will not be the same a decade from now.
Going through a pandemic should demonstrate to everyone how our scientific canon is continuing to change. Last January, we didn’t know what was happening. We didn’t know how COVID-19 was transmitted. We had no idea how to treat infections. We had medical professionals scrambling to share information in ad-hoc networks. Whether to wear masks, how far apart to be, and myriads of other questions are being determined in part because of constantly incoming streams of data. “Listen to the science” is hard to do if what we’re listening to constantly changes.
This isn’t a matter of science but public health experts, professionals whose sole job is to transform raw data into policy recommendations to reduce hospitalizations and death. Dr. Fauci is one of those professionals who has somehow become a folk hero. To be clear, we should absolutely listen to public health experts, but we should make sure we don’t glorify them. They are people, experts in their field, but not infallible. If a god falls, an entire religion falls apart.
I’m not saying this to promote conspiracy theories, but to point out the flaws in building a scientific establishment based on faith and trust. Science is not about trusting, but rather verifying facts. This verification is not done by a single organization but a decentralized network of universities, public organizations, and private organizations. Not every organization is as reputable as the others, and we should not blindly trust everything every organization releases.
There’s a real danger in that, in creating a blind trust in the flimsiest of studies, which can spread disinformation. There’s plenty of anti-vaxxers that are misinterpreting papers or taking low-quality research and blowing it out of proportion. There’s a lot of bad COVID-19 takes where the same language is used to spread conspiracies, claiming false things are “scientifically proven”. Science cannot “prove” things easily, as there are always going to be opportunities to explore deeper truths.
Even research from reputable organizations should not be accepted on faith. We’re seeing a replication crisis in many fields, including psychology, where results from one organization are not being replicated by others. This is a problem as the “facts” that we’re being given may in fact be untrue. Results may be exaggerated or data may be abused by p-hacking.
There’s a danger in politicizing science. Perhaps it’s not your fault. After all, you’re in the right. However, telling people to take things on faith are contributing to a sense that they’re “wrong” and you’re “right” rather than relying on the data.
In politicizing science, we move away from a shared understanding of the world. We lose the ability to use data to make decisions. We find ourselves unable to make progress, because some group rejects truth and objectivity.
Bias in science is a problem. Identifying factors like race or gender may play a role in skewing data in particular ways that aren’t fully controlled. Some people like to call this out, refusing the “objectivity” that is the goal of science. They suggest that objectivity is impossible, that a shared truth is unachievable.
This is also a problem in our society. By refusing the possibility of objective data, they already set the grounds for rejecting the results regardless of what they are. Certainly scientific studies are imperfect. They may easily suffer from poor data collection or incorrectly extrapolating data to a broader audience.
However, this is also dangerous. If our scientific results cannot be objective, they drift into politics. People will pick and choose which science to “believe” based on their personal feelings. Science doesn’t care if you believe in it or not. It’s going to be true regardless.
We should not reject data because of the vague claim of bias. We also should not ignore valid criticism of collected data. Rather, the goal should be improving data collection to get to a place with greater objectivity. If we just throw up our hands and say it’s impossible, we will fall into a hole of distrust and decay. Objectivity should be our north star, and we should always work towards getting more objective.
The problem is not just with the public, but with professionals. In the Netflix docuseries Unwell, there is one about the essential oils cottage industry. Despite professional studies that show these oils have no impact, or may be harmful, they are readily purchased in many suburbs. Why? The salespeople go into homes, appeal to the individuals who have been rejected or ignored by professionals. Essential oils provide both an answer and comfort, and the placebo effect can be very strong.
Too many people are being abandoned by our scientific institutions, left to wander into the hands of grifters and those who genuinely believe in their mission. Yet each time this happens, it amplifies this distrust. If you didn’t “trust the science” in one domain, why should you “trust the science” in another?
How are you supposed to “trust the science” when there isn’t always an agreement on scientific truths? How do we “trust the science” when politicians take advantage of scientific discord to peddle disinformation?
Because we do know things. We know climate change is actively affecting our planet. We know COVID-19 is an airborne virus transmitted between people. We know the COVID-19 vaccines greatly reduce infections, hospitalizations, and death.
There is a consensus around these facts from professionals, which may not be absolute but enough that it should inform our day-to-day particularly in cases of high risk.
If you’re fully vaccinated, you don’t need to wear a mask anymore. Yet many people still do, particularly inside shops. Some of this is public policy and some is volunteering, yet none of it is necessarily rooted in current scientific consensus. I’m not going to complain about being cautious. We should acknowledge the trade-offs between minimal risk against the minimal discomfort of wearing a mask in unnecessary situations. But we may be wrong about not needing masks.
We need to do better. We need researchers to add noise to their data when developing algorithms and their approach, then removing that noise to get the final results. This kind of blind-algorithm approach will reduce skewing and cherry-picking to get a result that limits human biases. We need to distribute data collection and replicate results more broadly, looping in communities and politicians so they will accept the results. More data and more objectivity is necessary, not more politicizing and hero worshipping.
Science will never be perfect. While the ultimate goal is to have perfect objectivity, we need to accept this won’t happen. Even if the vast majority agree on climate change, there will always be skeptics. And that’s good! We should push for our assumptions to be validated. We should not be afraid to update our understanding as new data comes in. Julia Galef writes as much in her book The Scout Mindset, which I recommend.
But we need to accept that science is not a religion, it’s a process. We need to accept that our scientific truths are not fixed. And we also need to listen to experts and their advice not because they’re experts, but because they did the search and show us the data.
To be clear, I love science. I’m regularly reading about scientific achievements and breakthroughs. I’m eager to gain a better understanding of the world around me. I may fallback at times to the excuse of “science says” in my conversations and debates.
I think we all should try to do better.