Scientific Research and the Information Ecology

 In Building Knowledge, Our Global Society

Any legitimate scientific research, whether it is conducted within academia or governmental agencies or private corporations or professional societies, should include certain self-correcting processes such as documentation, reproducibility, and peer review.  Science is essentially conducted as a multilateral social engagement, both within institutions that conduct research and between them.  When different scientists and different institutions compete with each other in their research, this can produce a dynamic wherein the theories with the best evidence and the best explanatory power and those that are the most reproducible and that stand up to scrutiny the best end up having the greatest propagation power.  Thus, there is a certain sociocultural evolution that favors the most evidence-based, reasonable, and parsimonious theories.

This is how the system is supposed to work, but it has started to break down recently because of the aforementioned crisis of sensemaking.  We are witnessing implausible and disproven ideas being propagated far and wide and enjoying widespread support in the general population.  We should be concerned about essentially nonscientific information being promoted as scientific.  We should equally be concerned that a significant percent of the population does not accept scientific knowledge, since it happens quite often that people reject conclusions that enjoy widespread and near unanimous support within the broader scientific community.  The root of the problem is that these people don’t seem to understand the self-correcting process through which bad science would be expected to be exposed and debunked and through which good science tends to rise to the top.  The scientific consensus is usually not wholly wrong because different scientists scrutinize and review each other’s work.  We don’t believe the world is flat because of abundance of evidence that it is round, but the intellectual tools upon which our modern world was built are now being rejected by large segments of the population, even into the Twenty First Century.  Lots of people don’t believe in even well-attested and generally accepted science, and we see huge social, environmental, and humanitarian crises being caused by this level of widespread ignorance and delusion.

As philosopher Michael Shermer has explained, most of us don’t understand the technical aspects of particular sciences such as epidemiology or climate science.  When people say that they believe in science, what they are doing is signaling that they accept science as a viable method of gaining reliable knowledge and therefore they trust science.  This does not rely on faith, but on a reasonable trust and confidence that science has self-correcting mechanisms.  These people are acknowledging that most of the time, science works.  Then there are people who express skepticism of science.  This sentiment is somewhat understandable since, in general, most people don’t understand the complex ins and outs of science very well.  At least with those who accept consensus scientific conclusions, they are going with a reasonable trust.

The science skeptics, on the other hand, seem more often to be motivated by political commitments rather than any legitimate intellectual reason.  If the consensus among climate scientists is that human activity is causing the planet to gradually warm and to threaten ecosystems and the future of human life, then those who find this sort of conclusion to be inconvenient for their political ideology will often be driven to reject the science and to dress up their skepticism in faux scientific language.

There is a very difficult dilemma for common people who aren’t professional scientists regarding what scientific theories to belief.  How do we decide who to trust?  Which sources?  In the modern age, we have so many.  In this information age, we have almost infinite sources, so we have to do some filtering.  Therefore the idea of scientific consensus needs to be more properly understood.  It is not based on majority opinion.  It is not a democracy.  It is not based on hierarchical authority.  When we accept science, we are acknowledging that the scientific claims have already been vetted.  This is what Karl Popper described as conjecture and refutation as the scientific method.  These conjectures have already been refuted or attempted to be refuted by professionals in their respective field.

By the time that this information is summarized for us in some mainstream publication, it has already been filtered.  In such situations, one can believe that what is being printed is probably true, not based on faith or authority but because they know that the people who are making those claims have already been tested and debated and disputed and that attempts to refute their work have already been made.  One who understands this process can have confidence that the system of scientific research works.

Photo by Satheesh Sankaran on Unsplash

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