Science’s Credibility Problem

In a recent social media interaction, a member of Mastodon challenged my observation that:

“The fact a large part of society has been convinced to abandon science with devastating effects is going to be what the early 21st century is known for.”

In an interesting thread of replies, the responder made many observations that seemed to deserve consideration, but I don’t think we are that far apart on our beliefs about science.

“Science is actually a terrible way to go about everyday life.” In general, this statement is spot-on. Science is a slow and deliberate process. We define exactly what we are studying, go to great lengths to control variables, define data collection and analysis methods, and discuss our findings in detail. This is great for researchers, but not for practitioners.

My field is education, and a teacher faced with a classroom full of students cannot apply scientific approaches. Learning outcomes (despite the “everyone knows we need them” rhetoric so common today) cannot be defined in the way phenomena are defined in science. Educators work in natural environments, so uncontrollable factors is reality. Analyzing and discussing their data in the way scientists do will do more to confuse students and their work than to strengthen it.

While we do not want teachers acting as scientists, we do want them designing their classrooms in a way that is aligned with what science has told us about learning. Consider “learning styles,” a debunked theory that continues to be widely used in teaching. When following the myth of learning styles, teachers believe and tell their students that each has a way to learn “works” best for them. For example, students are encouraged to believe they are a “visual” learner. Science has found there to be no correlation between one’s learning style and what they learn. Regardless of one’s learning style, we are all visual learners when learning to interpret graphs.

Science has also told us that learners who experience curriculum material in multiple ways learn it better. This seems to support the concept of “learning styles.’ It can be reasoned that the “visual learner” learned “Hamlet” by watching the video, while the “reading and writing learner” learned it by reading it. The more likely explanation is that both learners benefitted from each.

Through science, we attempt to understand nature and how it works. In the learning styles example, there is nothing there. It can be argued we do more damage to students by relying on “learning styles” than when we do not. The student who has been labeled a “visual” learners won’t even try to read “Hamlet” as they know they won’t learn it.

While we don’t want teachers to adopt the strategies of scientists, we do want them to be guided by scientific principles when making designing and delivering lessons. I maintain our society makes better decisions when we adopt similar approaches to decisions. We should have our children vaccinated (and adults should take recommended vaccinations) because science has demonstrated better health outcomes for individuals and populations when we do. Science has also elucidated the mechanism by which vaccinations work.

“Science is about replicating results.” When we are thinking about experiments (highly controlled methods with randomized trial and control groups) this is true, but there is much science that is done without experiments. I conceptualize science as the work of making empirical observations of the world for the purpose of explaining how nature works and making predictions that will confirm our explanations or cause us to abandon or modify them.

When science is done well, the failures to replicate results are more interesting than the studies that do replicate results. (Interestingly, many of the discoveries announced in the news are later rejected as they results are not replicated.) When replication fails, scientists question the construct (are we trying to find something that does not exist?), the methodology (did we design a bad experiment), and the analysis (was it there but we missed it?).

Science, as well, is an endeavor that defines generalities based on large numbers. In any experiment, there will be those marginal cases that do not follow the expected outcomes. When we are investigating the nature of contingent phenomena, the potential for discrepant cases is greater and replicating results becomes more difficult, but it does lead to greater understanding.

“[Science is as authoritarian as religion to laypeople.]” (This is paraphrase of a section of the thread.) This idea troubles me. I understand it, but it troubles me. My undergraduate preparation was in science education, specifically, I studied biology. Even then, 40 years ago to be exact, the biology was becoming very complicated. At the time, acid rain was a problem and some of the leading experts in the field were my teachers. It was complex situation, and they were engaged in studies that laypeople could not. As scientists, however, these professors also explained what they did to their undergraduate students (me included) and to the public (I still remember watching them be interviewed on television).

I appreciate those scientists (Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, Lewis Thomas are examples from my youth) who sought to “popularize” science. That term seems inaccurate, however, as those scientists saw science as something that could be understood by anyone.   

While it may be difficult to make sense of the work of scientists, it is grounded in data and reason. These are accessible (with effort and support) by anyone. Because of this, I am of the opinion that science is a democratic endeavor. (Although there is ample evidence, that there are gatekeepers throughout one’s pathway to science. As a professional working in an open access college, I’m doing what I can to remove them.) Science does not defer to authority. If a young upstart makes unique discoveries that overturn the established authorities, then they are overturned (although it may take some time—the authorities are human after all).

It can be reasoned that young upstarts may make unique contributions to theological thought. Ultimately, however, the source of authority differs between science and religion. Authority in science comes from nature; authority in religion comes from other authority. One can be understood, the other must be believed.

“Currently, science has credibility problem.” It sure does! My social media colleague suggests “attention whores” are placing themselves between science and laypeople and interpret the science according to their whim or their potential for attention. While I would not have chosen the words that “tooter” (the vernacular for those who engage on Mastodon) di to describe these people, the term is accurate. He goes one to suggest these people engage the public to a greater that scientists do, and the more salacious their interpretation, the more attention they garner.

This is the point I was trying to make in my original post. Science helps humans understand the way nature works. That knowledge is a good thing. How we apply that knowledge improves our lives, and it makes our lives worse. The unintended consequences of technologies have been well documented. Science also helps us understand the how our technologies work; it is impressive to see black smoke pouring out of a locomotive engine if you do not understand the pollution that accompanies the sight.

The essence of science is accurately describing how nature works. I am in the middle of my regular listen to the audio version of Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man. I have also been listening to Naomi Oreskes’ (and her colleagues’) books this summer as well. All these authors details situations in which “science” was not really science. Folks commandeering science to meet their needs is nothing new and it’s continuing.

Perhaps that is the real source of science’s credibility problem. It is a tool that has served the public well, but when it is bastardized by those who want nature to align with their political and social goals, then the public is probably wise to distrust it. Those who value science and the deep understanding it produces has a responsibility, it seems, to push back on those who want to use it for their own purposes.