Linus van Pelt and the Philosophy of Science

I’ve been seeing this anti-science propaganda meme a lot on social media recently, and rather than repeat myself I decided to address it here so I can just link to my answer. The people who post it aren’t necessarily opposed to science themselves — they might just think it’s clever or ironic.

It’s not clever. It’s disingenuous. Nobody who says “Trust the science” means, “Every finding of science is final and beyond dispute.” Nor do they intend it as an admonition to people doing science — it’s a guideline for public policy.

“Trust the science” is shorthand for, “When trying to solve a problem, you’re most likely to find an effective solution by paying attention to the current scientific consensus.”

This isn’t in conflict with continued research into the same question.

People who post this meme tend to respond when challenged with a litany of cases where the science was wrong or the research was conducted poorly or unjustly — racist, sexist, etc. It’s true that scientists are human beings and some of them are horrible or horribly mistaken. That’s why science has mechanisms for correcting errors — documenting methods and data, peer review, replication. Science also has a well-earned reputation for reliability — which is why fraudsters will often pretend to be doing science as a way to sell their snake oil to the unsuspecting masses.

In all of these cases, there’s one point to note: we know they’re errors. They’ve been corrected, acknowledged, or in the case of fraudsters and pseudo-scientists, debunked. No reputable scientist continues to claim things that have been shown to be false. Meanwhile, woo non-science and religion continue to make assertions that are easily disproven, in some cases for thousands of years. They never correct their errors.

I’m not saying science is perfect. There’s a lot we don’t know, and probably a fair bit of what we do know that’s not entirely correct*. I’m saying if you’re looking for practical answers, if you listen to the subject matter experts and find out what most researchers in the appropriate fields believe, your solutions will probably not be too far from optimal, and almost certain to be better than solutions based on religious dogma, the doctrine of your identity group, or your “gut.”

That’s what “trust the science” means.

† I’m not saying religion is wrong. Most religions have some good ideas about how to live one’s life and the value of kindness and justice, for instance. They’re valuable for the community they provide. They’re just not the best guide to how to formulate public policy.

* “Revolutions” in science are terribly, terribly rare. Occasionally something will turn out to be a mistake, a fraud, or just a statistical fluke which can’t be reproduced. But whole areas of knowledge built by careful scientific study, don’t need to be thrown out — given the fierce competition among scientists to find errors in each others’ work, they wouldn’t have survived long enough to become widely accepted unless there was a pretty large grain of truth in them. For instance, Newtonian physics is technically incorrect — Einstein created a better theory. But Newton’s laws are close enough to correct for everyday practical use. A gunner calculating a firing angle doesn’t have to adjust for relativity, for instance.