Science for antiscientists: Knowing your enemy

Are you one of the estimated 49% of the general public, or 3% of scientists, who don’t believe what science is telling us?

That’s because you’re scientifically illiterate, say scientists. If you understood how and why science works—goes the latest thinking in the science of antiscience—you’d see how unbelievably credible it is, and immediately switch sides.

The great thing is, it’s not even subtle, complex, unintuitive, mathematical or zen. You’ll pick up how science works in five minutes, no sweat. That’s what the rest of us did.

Fun fact: a science degree is the most pointless known way of spending your college years. I discovered this the hard way. The median high school graduate already knows how science works. (That’s why we all feel qualified to take a side in the climate debate and defend it til we’re blue in the face.) Bachelor of Science, really? What species of over-schooled rube is Big Education going to unleash upon the workforce next—the Walking graduate? The PhD in Chewing Gum? The jack of all trades with a Masters in None? The English major?

Without further ado, here’s a year or so’s worth of my B.S., packed tight for your edification. (I’ve probably forgotten to cover a couple of concepts but I’ll do another post later to tie up any loose ends.)

Once you read this you’re going to feel pretty silly for spending the last 25 years angrily denouncing [what you thought was] science!

Science has been defined as “the belief in the knowledge of experts.”

Knowledge has been defined as justified, true belief ever since 369 BC, when Plato laid the groundwork for epistemology in his dialogue Theaetetus.

That’s wrong though, as the great half-geologist half-historian Naomi Oreskes revealed in 2010. Thanks to Oreskes, Western civilization now has a proper definition. Knowledge, it turns out, is “the ideas accepted by the fellowship of scholars.” Thus “we can think of scientific knowledge as a consensus of experts.”

You’ve probably heard scientists talk—obsessively—about their goal of “achieving consensus,” a phrase they borrowed from politics. But what exactly would this entail? John Cook explains:

Science achieves consensus when scientists stop arguing.

Arguing means reasoning. Substituting, we get:

Science achieves consensus when scientists stop reasoning.

With Oreskes’ discovery of the identity of consensus and knowledge, the formula reduces to:

Science achieves knowledge when scientists stop reasoning.

Why do we need science?

While science has served a number of human needs throughout history, the main point today is that something has to inform policy. Policy needs information. (Opponents of climate science seem to be suggesting we craft our political and economic response to the existential climate threat out of thin air. Madness. Data, data, data—we cannot make bricks without clay.)

But it’s crucial to resist the metaphysical, philosophical tendency to seek The Truth. No science paper is ever going to explain the material universe exhaustively. Like annoying children, we’ll always come up with more questions.

Remember, science can’t tell us what is; it can only tell us what to do.

How am I supposed to know what science is saying?

Listen to the scientists.

Scientists are paid to tell us what the science is telling them to tell us to do.

Scientific evidence—like any other kind—is a form of testimony; any disagreements are resolved on a he-said-she-said basis. To figure out whose story to believe all we can ever really do is compare the credentials, credibility, legitimacy, qualifications, respectability, conference attendance and publishing record of the people telling them.

In science, reputation is everything! Only reputable authorities can be trusted without question. This axiom is so fundamental that the Royal Society enshrined as its motto the phrase Nullius In Verba—“Don’t [just] take anyone’s word for it.”

Because it depends entirely on trust, science is severely undermined by the blunders of fake “experts”: those who appear to know what they’re talking about until some new information forces them to admit they were unaware of something, or had it wrong.

If it’s only a minor detail this isn’t the end of the world—nobody expects scientists to be absolutely omniscient. They’re allowed a bit of leeway to learn as they go.

But not much. When a scientist deviates substantively from a prior view it’s fatal to his or her credibility, just like when a witness in court changes their mind about something.

Pro tip: The scientific process is, in fact, no different from litigation. If you’ve ever watched a forensic or legal drama, that’s how science works. It isn’t really how law works, of course (no TV show is a substitute for a Law degree!) but it does tell you all you need to know about science.

Who is science engaged in a knife-fight with?

A number of demographics. Unlike scientists themselves, their enemies are intellectually and ideologically diverse.

Skeptics are probably the most numerous opponents of science. While all true scientists are skeptics, and skepticism is not a bad thing per se, skeptics take skepticism waaay too far. Anyone with half a brain questions stuff like Christianity, but these folk are skeptical about everything—even (you guessed it) science!

Contrarians are distinguished by a lack of investment in their own beliefs. Science is little more than a game, an experiment, to these people! No matter how many times they’re proven wrong they barely pause to mourn their dead hypotheses; they simply move onto the next one. The scientific community doesn’t even have to lift a finger to deal with contrarians—they’re perfectly capable of proving themselves wrong, not to mention each other. They’ve even been known to disprove their own hypothesis within the very paper in which they first formulate it! It doesn’t seem to bother them when their ideas fail to survive their own study—they’ll write the experience up anyway, and attempt to foist it on the credible literature. A proper scientist would quickly learn to avoid such auto-humiliation, but a contrarian like Richard Lindzen almost seems to make a habit of it, leaving respected amateurs like Dana Nuccitelli and John Cook little choice but to mock the MIT professor as “the wrongest, longest.”

Auditism is the other big anti-knowlogist ideology you need to watch out for. Auditists have no interest in affirming or upholding science like proper scientists. They’re too busy looking for something wrong with it, or something missing—something the experts have somehow overlooked. While legitimate science is an attempt to prove (technically, to confirm) what scientists believe, auditistic people appear to suffer a cognitive ‘bias’ against confirmation. So they fixate on disproving—or improving, as they see it—the parts we haven’t got right. But why? What can they possibly hope to achieve by producing evidence against science? If you ever work that out you’ve got a Nobel Prize in Psychology coming. Don’t get your hopes up, though; even Chris Mooney, the English major who’s dedicated his career to the problem, is still at what scientists call the random-ass speculation stage.

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