Do you "trust scientists"?

You're supposed to trust "The Science"... but what is that and what makes it an authority?

Do you "trust scientists"?
Photo by Vlad Tchompalov / Unsplash

What does it mean to "trust the scientists"?

Silicon Valley party-boy Paul Graham decrees that all our technological marvels are products of the scientists:

If you think you don't trust scientists, you're mistaken. You trust scientists in a million different ways every time you step on a plane, or for that matter turn on your tap or open a can of beans. The fact that you're unaware of this doesn't mean it's not so.

Rogue economist Ammous Saifedean rejoins that technology happens when Chad technicians forget all the Virgin egghead stuff and get their hands dirty out in the real world:

This is such a powerful meme but it's completely wrong. The Wright brothers & a century of airplane builders were engineers. Scientists first dismissed flight as impossible even after it happened, then made up a bunch of irrelevant equations to pretend to explain how it happened.

I could write volumes on this.

In fact I had to cut out many a word to get this piece under my self-imposed word limit of 2000 words.

Here's the tl;dr for the non-reader:

Saifedean is right that science is parasitic on practical know-how and Graham is recycling a popular cultural mythology.

If you want the long-form unpacking, continue forth.


"Trusting The Science" means trusting in abstract theories that have not had to survive contact with reality

Do engineers that build and test functional machines have much in common with theorists who only create abstract speculations?

Do engineers follow "the scientific method" while designing, building, and testing their machines?

Could it be that science a category so large that it swallows up practical hands-on know how?

Some of this is word-play. Your Host has no time for word play.

But there is a real and interesting problem beneath the nerd-yelling.

Even if you screen out all the agendas, all the politicking and intrigues, all the incentives to chase grant money...

True believers in The Science have to face a conceptual problem down at the roots of knowledge.

Our intuitions about knowledge lean toward the unchanging, timeless, universal, always and forever Truth with a capital T.

If you know that "grass is green" and "2 plus 2 equals 4", then you know these truths. There's no doubt. No concern that you'll wake up one day to find that 2 added to 2 gives you five.

Scientific knowledge takes a hacksaw to that intuition

The philosophers might say that scientific knowledge deals with contingent facts.

A contingent fact is a fact that didn't have to be the way it is. Grass could have been red, the speed of light could have been 20 miles per hour.

We had to discover these facts. You can't figure out these details by thinking real hard and with clarity.

Our intuitions about knowledge, the capital-T Truth kind of knowledge, concern necessary truths. The gold-standard of a necessary truth is found in the syllogism:

If p, then q
p
Therefore q

The logical structure of the syllogism preserves truth in the conclusion. So, assuming that these premises are factually correct, the conclusion cannot be false. If you've got a p, then you've got a q.

Doesn't matter when, where, who, how, or under what conditions. The validity of the reasoning holds come what may, iron-clad and water-tight.

Necessary truths give us a ground for our reasoning. They give us certainty that we aren't just making noises. We've got a guarantee that we're hitting on the truth.

The problem is that, outside of a handful of ideal cases which mainly belong to formal logic and (probably) to mathematics...

There are no necessary truths in the real world

When scientists do science, they're not discovering capital-T Truth. They're discovering little-t truths, which are facts as science can discover them.

Which means they aren't secure at all. There is no certainty in a scientific fact.

There's no logical certainty. Any scientific discovery, no matter how well-tested and well-verified, can be overthrown by the next discovery. Scientific facts have to earn their keep.

And that causes a serious problem even outside the Ivory Tower.

Humans like to feel certain. That's the whole point of talking about knowledge. Knowledge shows us what is necessary and unchanging. There's security in that. We're standing on firm ground.

The logical certainty of a necessary Truth is one thing.

What gets you is...

The loss of psychological certainty

It's not far from the mark to say that the great bulk of art, philosophy, poetry and literature since the 19th century has been a response to this crisis of uncertainty.

Back then, you had the sciences upending every religious and traditional belief. And then you had the philosophers, under the influence of Hegel, transforming life and history into an abstract idea.

Writers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche paved the way for existentialist despair by pointing out how these abstractions of math and science and philosophy all leave out the most important detail:

The life of the unique individual.

None of this abstract reasoning, theoretical speculation, or model-building matters a single whit until it becomes important to somebody.

You can't tell up from down or front from back without some reference points.

If you leave it up to science, you become a critical mind, a skeptic who can question everything...

But you can't believe anything.


Science without training wheels

What happens when you give up on certainty?

If you're talking about pure philosophy, not much. For close to 100 years now, the trend has been to give up on certainty and understand that we live in a "groundless" reality.

There is no final certainty, no unquestionable evidence, no truths beyond question.

As I've told you before, science is a double-edged sword. It cuts one way when it throws acid on your traditional beliefs about yourself and the world.

It cuts another way when the specific discoveries of science become a new metaphysics and theology to fill the void of meaning.

You can't "trust scientists" by definition. Scientists, like football coaches and salesmen, are only as good as their next move.

What you've done in the past doesn't matter. You earn your keep with the next play.

That's the gist of engineering. You don't get points for designing a great bridge when it falls down and kills a bunch of people.

If engineers screw up, there's real consequences. And not just for the stuff they build.

That's why Saifedean is bearish on the prospects of "The Science". The people who build stuff only win if their stuff works. If it doesn't work, the device goes in the trash, and they might face a personal hit to reputation (or worse).

My cards on the table, here at RP I lean towards that side of the argument.

It echoes the thoughts of writers like Michael Polanyi, a trained chemist and writer on the philosophy of science.

Polanyi argued that scientists are skilled practitioners, with more in common with craftsmen and car mechanics than the myth of the aloof genius

Polanyi's famous for arguing that practicing scientists "know more than they can say" -- putting an end to this belief that science is a body of abstract knowledge, and shifting focus instead to the practical know-how of the folks with dirty hands.

Scientists today are over-specialized, professionalized, incentivized to play admin games and chase grant money, cooking up models and theories increasingly detached from reality, and none of them face any professional consequences for being wrong.

What Paul Graham calls "science" has increasingly little to do with the stuff we build.

Make no mistake. You want your science to be the best bet for an accurate map of the world.

But we're in a situation now where many fields are outright unable to produce knowledge that "works" when applied. Many others are sliding into abstract models that have nothing to do with the world you and I inhabit.

And that's all compounded by the fact that science cannot be certainty. Science is chaos and uncertainty dialed up to 11.

So the question is...


What happens when you're putting trust into an authority that is essentially uncertain?

It's bizarre to even talk about trust and authority in the context of science.

Trust and authority are not part of scientific theories and explanations.

They're human concepts, used by human beings interacting with other human beings.

Easy to forget this with our climate of shameless and sloppy propaganda campaigns that pass for thinking.

There is nothing in science that says you ought to believe science, trust science, like science, or care what science has to say.

It might be prudent and reasonable to know what science has to say on a topic that is relevant to your interests, sure enough.

But that's nothing like the religious furor and mysticism that compels grown-up adult human beings to chant "Trust Science, Believe Scientists" like monks in a medieval cathedral.

"Trust Scientists" isn't even good thinking. It's an idea that appeals to the simple-minded and sloppy. Turn your attention firmly to the past, look only at what's happened, what's been done, what is already visible.

All well and good until...

Reality careens out of the darkness of the future like a drunk driver, all flashing lights and sirens and crashing metal

Scientific knowledge without the luxury of absolute certainty and logical necessity can't be more than a game of trial and error.

The future is unknown and uncertain. What the sciences have already figured out does not, cannot guarantee that the future will be like the past.

That's another silly deterministic belief promoted by silly physicists who ought to know better, but don't because they're over-specialized into a ghetto and living on the prestige of Galileo and Newton.

It's easy to forget about all this in quiet times.

But when you're living through a panorama of panic propaganda, when "The Science" is no longer indifferent knowledge because every latest edict issued from the institutions that parcel out The Science has a direct bearing on whether your business stays open and whether you can go shopping for food...

Suddenly, overnight, that abstract problem for the philosophers becomes a real and acute problem in your life.

Mask, don't mask. This protest is okay, that protest is an existential risk. Take the safe shot, hold off on it until there's more testing.

It's exhausting, it's tedious, it's transforming scientific discoveries into rhetorical weaponry.

And worst of all, it's asking you to live in a world of false abstractions while you deny the concrete reality that you touch and see every waking moment of your life.

Abstractions only matter when they're relevant.

Believe science? Trust science? Only if science merits your trust.

And that's a whole 'nother set of problems, having to do with ethics and morals and political decision-making.

Science isn't the kind of thing you can trust. And...

Nothing in science can show that you should trust science on its own authority


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