Should we trust science? This is undoubtedly an important question. But simple as it sounds, by its phrasing, it’s a misleading question, and in fact, deceptively so.
In his recent article “What Makes Science Trustworthy” published in Boston Review, Philip Kitcher argues for the trust-worthiness of science to readers while telling them it’s a “time ripe for reassurance”. To support his position, the author cites—in fact, reviews in brief—Naomi Oreskes’ book Why Trust Science? Not surprisingly, the explanation borrowed from that work sounds as off-the-mark as Kitcher’s own prelude. He refers to Oreskes’ core approach that science is trustworthy because of its “sustained engagement with the world” together with “its social character.”
This is essentially a distraction and misrepresentation of the problem with scientific issues that Kitcher repeatedly tries to assure the readers of being scientifically valid implying that the readers should trust the science with them. This entirely avoids, and conveniently so, the real question: why we need to reassure people that they can trust science?
The current skepticism surrounding scientific areas of contention like global warming/anthropogenic climate change, vaccine safety/efficacy, and GMO safety etc hasn’t arisen from one’s own adherence to personal beliefs and tendency to swing this way than that; it stems from the issue of inconsistency. The so-called “settled” status of science, many of us know, isn’t settled per se. Studies have reported over and over the problems with the self-professed validity of the mainstream narrative on these research issues. So it is natural to be curious about the inconsistency.
What is worse than inconsistency, though, is the wide and consistent attempt of the authorities to silence dissent on these questions. People aren’t that stupid or resource-less as the authorities take them to be. In an age of social media and independent/citizen journalism, they see how studies countering the mainstream are retracted well after publication—something which subjects the credibility of those science journals to suspicion too. They see when media excludes, twists, or outright lies about the findings and views of the opposing side. And seeing all this censorship and authoritative control of the counter-narrative evokes the skeptical spirit in them.
Science has been called Democratic in nature because it allows, ideally speaking, dissent and works by reforming itself by taking the opposing view holders onboard. But is contemporary “settled science” of so-called safe vaccination, climate disasters, and harmless GMOs maintaining this Democratic spirit? Or is it getting more dogmatic and becoming a cult that declares victory by suppressing the voices questioning its narrative?
The question of science’s trustworthiness is the wrong one and serves the mainstream narrative in media and information sources because it is not science that is the target of skepticism; it is the self-interested mainstream narrative of corporate advertisement campaign masked as science that critical thinkers don’t readily buy. They want to see the reconciliation of opposing views, not the dogmatic exclusion of one or more opposing researches. They want explanation and accountability when experience runs contrary to the claims and assurances of those selling science to the public.
It’s time to disentangle science from corporate interest, to reclaim media’s freedom and independence form industry and political forces, and this liberate the scientific process and restore its independence and openness. Only then can we assure people of its trustworthiness.