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Why we should trust science

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When societies take positions against the consensus of science, for economic or ideological gains, they risk failure

It has been a time of crisis for science over the past several years. In cases where society and policy need inputs from science, there is now a widely prevalent view that the conclusions of scientific inquiry can be challenged for economic or ideological reasons. Here I briefly discuss the process and practice of science, establishing where conflicting views are germane and where they are a futile denial of evidence.

On three pillars

In essence, science is the organised method developed to understand nature. The method has developed over centuries and the knowledge gained has proved to be so effective that human history and the human condition over the past several centuries have been dominated by the knowledge and mechanisms made available by science. However, it should be recognised that while scientists and society may have strong moral and ethical bases, the scientific understanding of nature has none. It is just our collective, common understanding of what nature is.

Science and academics rest on three pillars, which are an interdependent set of facts, logic and reason. Facts relate to the patterns we observe and the evidence we collect. Logic stitches together observations and determines the rules to understand the evidence. Also, the latitude logic allows for the determination of rules is very constrained, which in turn makes the rules robust. Reason constructs hypotheses and these are tested for consistency against logic and fact. While logic is an aspect of reason, it is but one part. Reason encompasses imagination, creativity, mathematical thinking and other abilities of the human mind, which also helps understand facts. Without this triangular structure, the method of understanding nature falls apart.

Both logic and reason allow us to acquire more evidence. This evidence hones the logic and reason which advance our understanding. Very often, major advances result out of seemingly minor inconsistencies because this triangular structure holds. Minor inconsistencies which amplify into significant discoveries hang on this tight constraint, which has stood the test of centuries of inquiry. This triangular structure lies at the heart of the scientific method. When the application of the method disagrees with the consistency required by the triangular structure, it signals the need for new ideas and evidence.

The scientific understanding of nature represents the truest explanation of nature at any given time. To ignore or argue against this explanation, outside of the method above, is disingenuous. When societies take positions against the consensus of science, for perceived economic or ideological gains, they put themselves at risk of certain failure in the course of time. The only way to challenge the scientific consensus of the day is to apply the method above with higher standards and evaluate the validity of the existing consensus. This cannot be done by being selective about the evidence but by expanding the class of evidence that is relevant to the problem. For example, it is for this reason that the relevance of the theory of evolution is not a matter of debate because those who argue against evolution are not engaging with the evidence on the topic. To question scientifically established frameworks we must educate ourselves on the issue and work within the triangular structure to show up inaccuracies or deficiencies. Other reasons for disagreement with science will not survive scrutiny.

Faith and science

So what about faith? If one believes in the divine origins of things, is there an irreconcilable difference with science? The answer is no, if one accepts that nature and its rules are the expression of the divine. However, it is not possible for science to be in literal or metaphorical agreement with immutable words of religious origin. This is so because science is always transforming our view of the world. The contradiction is in the impossibility of the constant to be the same as the ever transforming.

Finally, one may still wonder why scientific consensus should be trusted. It is true that the consensus is transforming and evolving continuously. So why is this consensus the better bet? For those unfamiliar with the process of science, this consensus can appear as an alternate belief system. However, this is absolutely not the case. Working scientists are always challenging each other about ideas, facts and results. This is the everyday job of a scientist. When contradictions arise the issue is settled based on other independent work by unrelated parties. Finally, at some point, the contradiction is resolved and the reasons for the contradictions understood. Errors do occur and at times the prevailing consensus can run counter to its future revised version, but this is a self-correcting mechanism. The structure of the method is so rigid that in time the errors are found out. This is the strength of the method of science and the reason why it is virtually impossible to discredit scientific consensus, unless it comes from application of the method.

Sadiq Rangwala is an Experimental Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physicist

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Printable version | Dec 16, 2019 2:18:21 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/why-we-should-trust-science/article23516819.ece

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