Trust in Science

The other day John Gruber linked to Alan Boyle’s MSNBC column reporting on how conservatives have lost confidence in science. Gruber adds “No other trend has done more harm to the U.S. than this one.” I generally cringe at Gruber’s political posts, and I can think of a half-dozen more destructive trends off the top of my head, but that’s all beside the point.

The paper itself is locked behind the American Sociological Review paywall but the full text PDF is available from the American Sociological Association: Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010.

The MSNBC story and dozens of others which popped up to echo the partisan spin, present the paper in a way that is impossible to argue against. Science says people who don’t trust science can’t be trusted to comment on science. Disagree at your own peril.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.
— Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, 1871

I didn’t dig in too deeply, the paper itself seemed to possess a partisan viewpoint of which the author either wasn’t aware, or was incapable of stepping outside of. His interpretation of Table 3’s data was telling:

These results are quite profound, because they imply that conservative discontent with science was not attributable to the uneducated but to rising distrust among educated conservatives. Put another way, educated conservatives appear to be more culturally engaged with the ideology and […] more politically sophisticated.

Parse that. The author expected conservative distrust of science to result from a lack of education. Instead, the most educated conservatives had the strongest distrust of science. When the presumption of stupidity didn’t pan out, the author wrote off the correlation as resulting from ideological brainwashing. Because doubt and skepticism couldn’t possibly come from a place of knowledge or experience. Those graduate degrees are meaningless without the appropriate political affiliation.

Taking political ideology out of the picture, what’s potentially more troubling is the total population’s overall confidence in science was only 43.6%. However, if we’re supposed to just accept “the cultural authority of science” without question, I’m not certain that’s bad thing.

The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.
— Bertrand Russell, from The Triumph of Stupidity, 1933

Scientific knowledge is not simply a collection of immutable laws. Science is not finished. Accepting theories without question is dogma, not science.

It is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt.
— Richard Feynman, Caltech Lunch Forum, 1956

Two days earlier, Physorg ran an article about a dramatic increase in retractions in scientific journals. Has modern science become dysfunctional? (via Tuck & John)

In the past decade the number of retraction notices for scientific journals has increased more than 10-fold while the number of journals articles published has only increased by 44%. While retractions still represent a very small percentage of the total, the increase is still disturbing because it undermines society’s confidence in scientific results and on public policy decisions that are based on those results.

Gary Taubes’ recent definition of science is worth repeating:

Science is ultimately about establishing cause and effect. It’s not about guessing. You come up with a hypothesis — force x causes observation y — and then you do your best to prove that it’s wrong. If you can’t, you tentatively accept the possibility that your hypothesis was right.

Today, The Bust Boosters has come over all sci-fi and Zoft chewing gum, which claims to boost boob size, is currently flying off the shelves all over the US.

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved science. But I’m skeptical of science because it demands nothing less. Scientific knowledge is the beauty that remains after wonder is stripped bare by doubt.

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.
— Albert Einstein, as quoted in LIFE magazine, 1955