Minding the Sciences — Rebuilding the Public’s Trust in Science

Over the past three years, the general public has been inundated with appeals to “Trust the science.” In spite of this, many have grown increasingly distrustful of both science and scientists. It is the height of hypocrisy to expect people to put their blind faith in scientific authority—for that is what “trust the science” amounts to—especially when science itself is based on a rejection of authority. Far from demanding that the public submit to science, the good scientist can rebuild the public’s trust by humbly welcoming criticism, debate, and disagreement.

Steeped in the rationalism of Descartes and the empiricism of Locke, scientific knowledge is the product of reasoning and experimentation, not revelation. In fact, according to Carl Sagan, perhaps the most renowned scientist of the latter half of the twentieth century, one of the greatest commandments of science is to mistrust arguments based on authority. However, Sagan knew that scientists had an authority problem: “Scientists, being primates, and thus given to dominance hierarchies, of course do not always follow this commandment.” How right he was, at least for some! No one whose discipline requires a repudiation of knowledge based on authority would, in turn, demand that others trust them because of who they are or what they have done. Only the scientist who has truly lost his way, or the talking head ignorant of science altogether, would make such a hypocritical demand.

Good science is rooted in skepticism, even skepticism of its own findings. Good science has a healthy distrust of itself. This is because all human knowledge, which includes scientific knowledge, is imperfect. Sagan wrote, “The history of science – by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans – teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.” Even Albert Einstein, arguably the world’s greatest scientist, said, “In our great mystery story there are no problems wholly solved and settled for all time.” Thus, even the best of scientific knowledge should be considered provisional, and any exhortation to “trust the science” should at least be followed with the disclaimer, “until we learn more.”

[Related: “Minding the Sciences — At DDP, Innovation Trumps Environmentalism”]

The self-evident truth that we will never have absolute certainty, at least on this earth, should make the scientific community open to debate and critique. True science, as a pursuit of knowledge, thrives on diversity of thought, including disagreement. As Sagan put it:

There are no forbidden questions in science, no matters too sensitive or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths. That openness to new ideas, combined with the most rigorous, skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, sifts the wheat from the chaff. It makes no difference how smart, august, or beloved you are. You must prove your case in the face of determined, expert criticism. Diversity and debate are valued. Opinions are encouraged to contend – substantively and in depth.

As long as the public continues to ask questions about the veracity of scientific findings, good scientists will have the opportunity to defend their conclusions, and either confirm them through replication or change them based on new data. Either way, mankind benefits from improved, albeit imperfect, knowledge. Woe to the society that openly accepts all scientific conclusions merely because scientists are “authorities.” Not only do they leave the door wide open to potential falsehood and propaganda, but they stifle intellectual curiosity, suppress critical and creative thinking, and shackle themselves to the scientific status quo, making themselves no different than a slave—the latter physically shackled, the former intellectually.

Rather than peevishly demand that people “trust the science,” scientists should welcome skepticism and criticism as an opportunity to extend their previous research and add to the world’s collective knowledge. They should never say, “Here are my conclusions. Trust me, because I’m a scientist.” Furthermore, they should rebuke those who even come close to making a claim based on nothing more than scientific authority, whether they be colleagues,  talking heads, or policymakers.

The good scientist can only say, “Here is my data. The evidence suggests this conclusion.”  He says this because he knows that all knowledge is imperfect and provisional. There will come a day, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps in a thousand years, when someone else will look at that same data, tweak his experimental design, and come up with something new. This is why he welcomes diversity and disagreement as opportunities to improve; he even points out possible flaws in his own research and identifies how they can be corrected in future research. He wants the public to scrutinize his work, and even demands that the public probe and fact-check all of his calculations and conclusions. It is through this process—a process of discovery, criticism, and replication—that our collective knowledge grows. It will never be perfect knowledge, at least not on this earth, but it can always be improved. That is why the good scientist stays humble. That is how science regains the public’s trust.

Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a new Minding the Campus article series called Minding the Sciences, wherein we are renewing our focus on the sciences given the many threats it faces in modern academia. Click here to learn more.

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  • Tony L. "Bo" Vets II

    Tony L. "Bo" Vets II is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst with over twenty years of experience working with people diagnosed with autism and other developmental disabilities. He is currently pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Humanities at Faulkner University.

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5 thoughts on “Minding the Sciences — Rebuilding the Public’s Trust in Science

  1. Tony L. “Bo” Vets II may very well know much about people with autism and developmental disabilities and be pursuing a humanities Ph.D. But he knows little about science or scientists, which is consistent with the psychology of behaviourism or any other psychology for that matter.

    Science means knowledge, from the Latin term “Scientia”. You either have it or you don’t. As to his assertions that, quote:

    1. “The good scientist can only say, ‘Here is my data. The evidence suggests this conclusion.’ and 2. “He says this because he knows that all knowledge is imperfect and provisional.”

    Really? So how does Bo KNOW what the “good scientist can only say”?

    Here is some data and also evidence, quote:- “2”. What conclusion does that data and evidence “suggest”???

    Don’t look now, but it does not “suggest” the sum of 1 plus 1, although that is one possibility. I was thinking more along the lines of 3 blind mice were wandering around lost and one got killed, so there were only “2” left. Perhaps “Bo” and “J. Scott Turner” were the 2 “Blind Mice” who were not killed. But that is a “provisional assertion” since Turner sounds like an actual scientist. However, whether or not there were 3 blind mice, of which 2 were named Bo and Scott, when one of the 3 gets killed then there are only 2 blind mice left out of 3. That isn’t an “imperfect and provisional” answer. It is based on solid arithmetic — one of the 7 liberal arts and the first of the quadrivium.

    The “idea” that actual scientists, again (sigh), are, quote: “Steeped in the rationalism of Descartes and the empiricism of Locke” is just so obviously “off” as to defy explanation. My best guess is that Bo has studied Descartes’ method of doubt and Locke’s goofy empiricism in his new philosophy studies. But Descartes promised a proof of God’s existence and of the immortality of the human soul with his Meditations. He proved/demonstrated neither. He regurgitated a bad version of Anselm’s ontological argument for his non-proof of God’s existence, which had been refuted by Aquinas circa 200 years before he ever existed. Then Descartes asserted that God would not let him be wrong about his “clear and distinct” IDEAS! But Socrates proved that no one has direct knowledge of their own ideas about 1000 years before Descartes existed and Freud did the same thing with his “subconscious” findings long after Descartes existed. And what does Locke start with — IDEAS that every one is aware of in their own mind! But we’re not aware of them. Because if we are aware of our own ideas, then we get stuck inside our own minds and there is no way out. Humans are aware of all kinds of things well outside their own minds, which they understand by means of the ideas in their own minds. In short we don’t understand ideas, we (i.e. some of us; not all of us) understand things.

    The philosophical error of both Locke and Descartes [personal awareness of one’s own ideas by “introspection”] is what turned modern philosophy into a “joke” for mathematical scientists like Stephen Hawking. And Descartes was not a bad mathematician. His Cartesian Coordinate Geometry is the direct intellectual precursor of calculus. But Descartes was terrible at philosophy along with John Locke for the same goofy reason and error. And anyone should suspect that there was some sort of a “goofy error” because the next British so-called “empiricist” (Berkeley) was a complete and utter idealist and the 3rd, David Hume, was a complete skeptic about cause/effect relations among many other “skepticisms” that no actual Aristotelian Empiricist ever entertains for long.

    Aristotle, or his students from their lecture notes, wrote 24 centuries ago, that all men, by nature, desire to know [knowledge = science], which is why we take delight in our senses, even when they are not being useful to us. And above all the others (i..e. other senses) the sense of sight — because this sense (above all others) shows us the similarities and differences between things. Science does not “take off” in the 17th century because of Cartesian Rationalism or Locke’s empiricism. It takes off because of 2 improvements in the human sense of SIGHT [Just as Aristotle suggested in the first paragraph of the 1st Chapter of the 1st Book of his “Primary Philosophy” treatise; a.k.a. “Metaphysics”], which were telescopes (to see things as larger and more clearly from much farther away) and microscopes (to see things as larger and more clearly from much closer “in”). And those 2 instruments improved human OBSERVATION/s, which is the start of any scientific inquiry.

    Bo, contrary to Aristotle, thinks that “scientific knowledge is the product of reasoning and experimentation, not revelation.” Aristotle, in contrast, both thought and said that “All knowledge given or received by way of argument proceeds from pre-existent knowledge.” [Posterior Analytics; Bk I, Ch. 1.; 71a lines 1-2] That pre-existent knowledge must be “revealed” by someone. They’re called teachers. The process is called Education. And in the end (more correctly the beginning) one must make an OBSERVATION of something in order to either “reason” about it or “experiment” upon it.

    As to “trusting science”, only politicians say things like that. Actual scientists were at each others throats from the beginning of Covid — and they are still at it, at present, even though there have been many casualties of so-called “woke” science, which is a contradiction-in-terms.

    Finally as to, quote: “The self-evident truth that we will never have absolute certainty, at least on this earth, SHOULD make the scientific community … ” (yaddety). That is not a self evident truth. Some people are absolutely certain despite being wrong. Other people have grave doubts and uncertainty, despite being absolutely right. Kurt Goedel, despite being a much better mathematician than Descartes, was absolutely certain he was being poisoned. So he starved himself to death. Descartes was absolutely certain he could see his own IDEAS as well as have “mini-beatific” visions, between meditations. He could not and did not. Conclusion:- Mathematicians are “goofy” despite their mathematical abilities. But I digress:

    Some people do have absolute certainty because they’re “woke”, which refutes the “We” thesis. Even if you know something to be self-evidently true, such as, for example: “Every finite whole is greater than any of its finite parts.”, nothing of a SHOULD or OUGHT variety of statement logically follows. Hume correctly asserted (one of his few actual insights) that no should or ought statement logically follows from any number of true sorts of IS statements. By the same token, no infinite number of IS or IS NOT statements could ever logically refute a self-evident OUGHT or OUGHT NOT statement — which Aristotle had in his repertoire of actual knowledge/science. I have little doubt that “Bo” will be even more skeptical about knowledge; a.k.a. science; after a few more years in the philosophy department because it gets a lot worse after Locke and Descartes.

    Good luck to him. He won’t learn any science in a philosophy department. Just sophistry, piled upon more sophistry — until even goofy Karl Marx makes more sense than, e.g. Immanuel Kant — everything “out there” is “intrinsically unknowable”!!! [And Kant was CERTAIN of that sophism!]

  2. The scientific community has only itself to blame. As the saying goes, he who pays the piper calls the song. Everything changed when the majority of academic research funding came from the federal government. Well politics determines what gets funded and funding determines what gets investigated.

    Once highly respected scientific periodicals have lost the reputation they had, all because they took political positions instead of sticking to science. National Geographic and Scientific American are two examples that come to mind. The public is becoming increasingly aware that research funding is driven by politics. Does anyone think the CDC or NIH would ever have seriously funded research contrary to the White House position on vaccine mandates? Who believes the NSF will fund research investigations that posit anthropogenic climate change is a hoax? I wonder if the Department of Energy will “invest” in new methods of extracting fossil fuels.

    No, if your investigation is contrary to the narrative, lack of funding is the least of your worries. These days you won’t even get published regardless of how sound the research is. It’s just another version of the censorship that goes on daily in social media. And the public is now wise to it.

    Funny thing about trust. Once it’s gone, it never comes back. And public trust in science is no different.

    1. Actually, the Department of Energy funded research that largely got fracking going.

      No, funding research that says that climate change is a “hoax” would be stupid.

      1. The Department of Energy provided almost no funding for fracking. It was funded by the fossil fuel companies.

        Funding research that shows antropogenic climate change—a claim based almost entirely on computer models that can be user manipulated—is a hoax is not stupid. It would save the taxpayers trillions of dollars, and thereby improve the quality of life. Maui burned to the ground. Turns out the electric companies spent huge amounts of money on green energy projects rather than managing undergrowth around power lines. I wonder who funded that…

        Of course we could all believe in the hoax and see in 2050 what fools we were.

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