Review: Why Trust Science by Naomi Oreskes

Science is in a crisis of trust. Politicians frequently deny the role of humans in climate change. Celebrities (as well as a significant amount of the general population) won’t vaccinate their children. There is an obvious distrust among some of the public regarding science. People deny some of the most established scientific findings we have to-date. But why?

On the other hand, science has been wrong before. Tectonic plates, geocentrism, and eugenics are just a few examples of when science changed its conclusions.  How should we understand this? Why should we trust science?

Fortunately, there are answers. Why Trust Science? by Naomi Oreskes (Merchants of Doubt, The Collapse of Western Civilization ) is a serious exploration of this straight-forward question, diving into the many arguments and examples of what science is, the history of the discipline, and why it should be trusted. A philosopher and historian of science, Oreskes gives us a book written with such precision and depth it can be used by climate activists, tech CEOs, or just about anyone trying to make sense of the 21st century and its dominant method of knowing. It could not be written at a more important time.

To the surprise of some, why trust science may seem obvious, naive, even questioning common sense. But  “common-sense” takes a lot of work. Science was not widely accepted by everyone, hundreds of years ago, with some even citing some of the reasons for denialism that are used today. You might not be a climate-denying, anti-vaccine eugenicist, but it would still do most of us good to think about why we trust an institution like science, and how we can equip ourselves with honest arguments about what science is, how it works, and what it does and does not do. 

Oreskes begins the book with a history of how humans have understood science throughout the 19th, 20th, and up to, the 21st century. For many of us, the argument we might be most familiar with is because science follows a specialized method: the scientific method. 

The scientific method is best understood as a formula or prescribed method for gaining positive knowledge about something. In many cases, the scientific method is based on observation of phenomena, for example. Through studying the world, scientists compile observations and make conclusions based on those observations: otherwise called inductive reason. This is one way to understand how the scientific method is deployed.

However, observation is only one tool in our methodological tool-box. Science relies on making hypotheses, as well. In disciplines such as physics, making predictions about the world and then testing to see if those predictions are true (what is called the hypothetico-deductive method) is another dominant method for doing science. But these methods are different: one is inductive while another is deductive. With competing methods, it begs the question: what is the scientific method then? It would appear that there is no singular scientific method if there are different ways to do science. This breaking-point from thinking science is defined by a unique and omniscient method begins some of the most serious exploration of what science is and does throughout the 20th century.

Oreskes threads a whole centuries-worth of intellectual conversation on the philosophy of science throughout chapter one. She speaks of Karl Popper’s falsifiability theory: the philosophy that what distinguishes science from other forms of knowledge is, “not that a [scientific claim] can be verified, but that there is some observation that it can be refuted” (26). Science is not about confirming theories but falsifying them, according to Popper. 

Showing the lack of comprehensiveness in falsification, Oreskes moves into a philosophy of science she seems more approving of: the social element of science. Building off the theory of Ludwick Fleck’s thought collectives, what makes science a trusted form of knowledge, accordinging to Oreskes, is that there is a community of scientists working together, self-correcting, reviewing, and hypothesizing as a collective. 

Immediately, readers might be surprised to hear that the social element of science is actually what gives it its reliability and trustworthiness. One might be suspect in thinking this way because we’ve always thought of science and scientists as cold, calculated, unbiased, people discovering objective truths of the world. By embracing the social element of science, one risks falling into the false belief that all scientific findings are “social constructs” and therefore don’t have any standing beyond what people say or believe. This is misguided, according to Oreskes.

Her answer to this conundrum: consensus. It is through consensus, meaning agreement among the experts (which by definition is a social process), that we achieve scientific conclusions. In order for consensus to happen, things like peer-reviewed papers, academic conferences and journals, critique and consistent engagement among scientists and their work, gives science its consensus which is why it should be trusted. If enough scientists engage with a topic (like if the earth is warming) by reviewing the studies, methodologies, and having critical conversation amongst one another, we can find consensus and have a better idea about our world. 

But consensus is not enough on its own. Oreskes talks about diversity as another strength of science. In the case of race-based science like eugenics, there was not a diverse collection of scientists doing eugenic “science” to stop and think about the racist undertones the discipline was founded on. If people of color were included in the labs doing this type of research, there would have been a different conversation happening on how valid eugenics was. 

In chapter 2: “Science Awry” Oreskes gives a number of examples of when scientists were wrong and ultimately reversed their conclusions. An enlightening chapter, Oreskes does a good job being honest about how science is not a replacement for an omniscient God, but a practice that is susceptible to cultural bias, time constraints, and general laziness. Her conclusion about scientific mistakes: have humility, self-correct, and examine false conclusions one-by-one. Just because a scientific conclusion is wrong, does not mean the discipline as a whole is a lost cause. There are reasons why scientists get things wrong. Discover why, fix them and get to work.

Where does this leave someone who doesn’t have time to read the scientific literature, understand the methodology, or follow the scientific consensus? When should we trust science? Oreskes takes her cue from 17th century french philosopher Blaise Pascal and his famous wager: what are the risks of believing in scientific conclusions versus the risk of denying them?

If we take climate change as an example, what is the risk in denying climate change given that scientists tell us a warming world is catastrophic for human health, access to food, migration, and a host of other issues? By Pascal’s Wager, we should accept the scientific conclusions of scientists because the risks of not are far greater than accepting the science and acting on it. As the public, we should accept and act on the science of a changing climate because if we don’t and the science is actually right, we’re screwed. If we act, and we were wrong about climate change, we would make the world better anyway. Risk analysis should be how the public thinks about scientific conclusions like climate change, vaccines, and other public health issues. 

In chapter 3, ”Values in Science” Oreskes briefly discusses how important values are in science: again, maybe to the surprise of some who think of science as a value-free enterprise. 

The content of Why Trust Science? comes from a lecture series Oreskes did at Princeton University in 2017. Since it was an actual event with people in the audience, the book’s final three chapters contain replies from experts across fields (political science, philosophy, climatology) who respond to Oreskes’ answer to the question “why should we trust science?” 

Since most of her argument relies on the social element of science—scientists and experts talking to one another and being critical, it is only fitting that Oreskes dedicates nearly a quarter of the book’s content to critical conversation among experts. The book ends with Oreskes’ response to her colleagues. And the conversation continues somewhere else, I suspect.At a time when “science” in America seems like a partisan issue, Why Trust Science? offers honest and sober contemplation on one of humanity’s greatest disciplines. Although science is not all-knowing, and scientists are people like you and I who make mistakes, it is still the most reliable and stable form of knowledge gathering we have. We should trust science because of all it takes to make even one scientific conclusion: the evidence, the technology, the funding, the studies, the papers, the journals, reviews, critiques, and the plurality people working together to form agreement.

<em>Why Trust Science</em> by Naomi Oreskes
Why Trust Science by Naomi Oreskes

Naomi Oreskes is professor of the history of science and affiliated professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University. Her books include The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future and Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Twitter @NaomiOreskes