Should We Trust Science?

Photo by Khashayar Kouchpeydeh on Unsplash

I find myself frustrated lately. I am vaccinated and I continue to wear a mask when I go out in public. I do so for several reasons. One is that my daughter is one of many unvaccinated people (she’s too young), and I would hate to spread COVID to someone who could be seriously hurt by it. Second, it just makes me more comfortable. Third, I worry about variants. Often, I feel like I’m the only one still wearing a mask. I know that’s not the case, though. Spend any time online and you will see many fierce mask advocates. These are the people I’m writing to today. (Of course, everyone is welcome to read and comment. It’s just that I want my fellow vaccinated mask-wearers to consider what I have to say.)

I see it all the time, people proudly proclaiming, “I believe in science!” or demanding that other people, “trust the science.” Some like to say, “Thank you, science,” and implore others to, “Listen to the science!” I want to say I know what they mean, sort of, if I’m being extra charitable, but the reality is I don’t have a clue. All four of the statements listed, and all the others like them, are absurd. I’m not even trying to be Wittgensteinian (you can take that to mean snarky, nit-picky, or both) here. I’m a big fan of figurative language.

But, think about those statements. “I believe in science!” I mean, sure, I think science is something that exists. It’s like saying, “I believe in colors.” There’s no point to the assertion. Unless they mean “believe in” as in “support.” “I support science!” That’s still a pretty weird thing to say. Would you say, “I support red?” What about when the red is a result of a deep cut on your arm? Do you still support red? There’s good science. I believe that. But, there’s plenty of bad science, too. Science isn’t a monolith. Why support it all? (Never mind the irony of supporting science unquestioningly.)

The other three statements are all absurd in the same way. Science isn’t the kind of thing that can be thanked, trusted, or listened to. It doesn’t do anything or say anything. Science is a tool or a method. “Thank you, hammer.” “Trust the karate.” “Listen to the measuring tape.” No thanks. I’d rather thank the carpenter, trust the sensei, and listen to the person taking measurements. And even that’s only if I believe the carpenter, sensei, and measurer are competent, honest, mostly unbiased, and using their powers for good.

I know a lot of my intended audience is rolling their eyes at this point. What I’m saying is pretty obvious upon any reflection. They’ll tell me that they obviously support, thank, trust, and listen to scientists, not science. These are just figures of speech. But, here’s the thing, scientists are just people. There is nothing special about them whatsoever. Some of them are very good, intelligent, unbiased, and trustworthy. Others are bad, stupid, biased, and deceitful. Most fall somewhere in between.

And here’s the point, “anti-science” is completely understandable, rational even. It has very little to do with science at all. It comes down to whether we trust the people telling us about the science. This is pretty basic epistemology. Most of what we know, or think we know, is learned from others. I know nothing about cars, for example. If my mechanic tells me I need brakes, I believe him and get brakes. I don’t know for sure if I really need brakes. I don’t even know how to check for myself. If someone presents me with evidence that my mechanic is crooked and recommending unnecessary repairs just to line his pockets, it throws everything into doubt. It would make sense for me to not replace my brakes. Nothing about the physical facts has changed, I may still die in a car wreck because of bad brakes, but my reason for believing my mechanic is gone. The mechanics’ union and car enthusiasts may label me anti-maintenance, but I’m being rational and trying to protect myself.

The problem that we are facing is that scientists, policy makers, reporters, and lawyers have consistently shown themselves to be untrustworthy. And I don’t mean that they’ve been the victims of conservative smear campaigns (although that has happened, too). They have been untrustworthy all on their own. Look at the pandemic. For over a month after lockdown started, we were told repeatedly by scientists, reporters, politicians, and our well-meaning neighbors, “Don’t wear masks.” We were told that they are pointless, the virus is smaller than the gaps in the masks (there were even diagrams and charts). We were told that they make things worse because of the way they change the way breath is dispersed. We were told that coronavirus spreads on surfaces anyway. We were all washing our groceries when we got home from the store. A month later, there was a full reversal. Masks are everything. They are the only way we can protect ourselves.

I know the, “that’s how science works, we learned new information,” response. It’s bogus, though. If scientists, reporters, politicians, and well-meaning neighbors wanted to be trustworthy, they would not have told us masks were ineffective or harmful. They would have said things like, “We don’t know,” or, “We’re studying it, but the results aren’t in yet,” or even, “Masks would really be great, but there is a major supply shortage. We need to give the masks we have to medical professionals. Isolate until everyone can have a mask.” Instead, they lied to us. I’m guessing they felt that it was better to be reassuring than truthful, but it backfired, spectacularly.

It’s not just the pandemic, either. We’ve passed so many, “If we don’t do something by. . .” dates with global warming that I’ve lost count. They lied to us about AIDS and Autism. Turn on the TV or YouTube for any length of time and you’re going to see misleading claims made by drug manufacturers. The replication crisis is very, very real. In other words, it would be dumber to trust than be skeptical.

Now, as I said at the beginning, I am vaccinated. I wear a mask. I worry about global warming and all the rest. But, I don’t think people who don’t are necessarily stupid. The failure isn’t on our neighbors. It’s on the scientists, reporters, and politicians. The well-meaning neighbors should change their strategy accordingly. Hectoring never did anyone any good. Neither has condescension. Treating people like they’re stupid or unreasonable just makes them defensive. Listening sympathetically would go further.

Ultimately, it isn’t our responsibility to convince our neighbors. Forget the maskless anti-vaxxer down the street. It’s a free country. We have no more right to tell him what to do than he does us. We do have a right, even a duty, to take the scientists, policy-makers, and reporters to task, though. Demand they be trustworthy. Don’t make excuses for Fauci lying to us about masks. Make him do better (or get rid of him). Biden shouldn’t be able to get away with, “But I said ‘please.'” If the left continues it’s strategy of victim-blaming, nothing is ever going to get better.

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