Trust seems like the only grounds on which non-scientists can accept scientific findings, internationally acclaimed Harvard Professor in the history of science Naomi Oreskes said at a Thursday lecture.
However, she noted, trust depends on shared values, which non-scientists and scientists often lack.
Oreskes defended some suspicion about scientific findings, especially since what experts label true constantly changes.
“Why should we accept any contemporary claim if we know it may be overturned in the future?” many skeptics ask, according to Oreskes. She cited climate change as an example.
She analyzed several cases of science gone wrong by itself, without influence from religious conviction or corruption.
In every situation, Oreskes argued, evidence was ignored or discounted. Most exclusion occurred because of excessive commitment to the scientific method, which she called “methodological fetishism.”
One case involved the early 20th century German theory of continental drift. Despite robust evidence in its favor, American scientists rejected the hypothesis. Oreskes attributed this mistake to a preoccupation with the scientific method.
“American geologists thought Europeans were guilty of a form of ‘grand theorizing’” based on principles instead of proof, she explained.
Similar problems hid the link between the birth control pill and depression until recently, even though evidence for the correlation dates nearly to the start of sales. Oreskes noted that Barbara Seaman's 1969 book “The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill” publicized the association. Psychiatrists were among the first doctors to convince their wives to avoid the pill, after the women showed mood swings or even murderous urges.
But most of the few studies related to hormonal birth control and psychological impact relied heavily on self-reporting. Because the evidence came from patients but not scientists, some of it was disregarded.
“Many scientists think they make their science stronger by being strict about method, but the history of science actually suggests the opposite is true,” Oreskes said.
False scientific findings generate significant dissent within the scientific community, she argued.
She described eugenics, in which many espoused racist ideals and the sterilization of tens of thousands of those deemed unfit without their consent, and sometimes without their knowledge, in the US and Europe. The movement culminated in the Nazis murdering hospital and asylum patients as a step toward the extermination of undesirable groups. People like Michael Crichton concluded that the scientific consensus supporting eugenics deserved rejection, as does the scientific consensus recognizing climate change, she said.
Yet Oreskes pointed out that scientists disputed eugenics. Social scientists criticized eugenics’ class bias against poor whites, specifically immigrants in the US and the working class in the UK. Socialist biologists like J.B.S. Haldane, the founder of population genetics, deemed eugenics scientifically unsound for not understanding mechanisms of genetic inheritance enough and socially insufficient because it groundlessly demeaned the lower income people. Others highlighted the impossibility of distinguishing inequalities caused by genes from those caused by the environment in an unfair capitalist society.
Scientific consensus rarely occurs, Oreskes noted.
“One of the first things we can do in any debate is to ask: Is there a scientific consensus?” she said. “If there is a consensus and there’s a debate, then that suggests the debate isn’t about the science, but something else,” she said, listing political opposition or lifestyle choices as examples.
Another recurring theme in faulty science proved to be controversy over values.
Oreskes said that despite attacks on her by ideological opponents, she raises awareness about climate change to promote her values, which she believes many skeptics share. She seeks to prevent people from harm. In addition, she cares about the beauty of the United States and the planet.
Her commitments led her to give her own version of Pascal’s Wager, a famous philosophical argument that everyone should believe in God for the sake of self-preservation in case God exists.
“If we fail to act to prevent climate change and it turns out that climate change scientists were right, then people will suffer and our world will be diminished. If it turns out that those scientific claims were wrong, then we will have created a better world for nothing,” Oreskes said.
Titled “When Science Goes Awry: Perspectives from the History and Philosophy of Science,” the talk took place at 4:30 p.m. in a packed McCormick 101.