Why I Have Confidence in the Work of Research Scientists

banner-982162_1920The title of this blog post is written carefully. I do not trust individual scientists more or less than any other persons. I have confidence in the work they do because of the rigorous process to which it is submitted. I also particularly specify researchers, people who are testing theories, running experiments, presenting findings at conferences, and submitting papers to journals for publication. I am not speaking of scientific popularizers or those who use the cloak of science to advance ideological agendas. I also speak in the plural. Individual scientists, like any humans may err, but the scientific community has built in processes that sift out the erroneous.

I will be honest, I do not write as a scientist. I write as someone who knows scientists from work in collegiate ministry at a major research university. I write as someone who has watched people work for months setting up lab apparatus for experiments, only to get inconclusive data and start over. I’ve watched people spend hours of effort crafting research proposals for grants that are vetted by fellow researchers in a system where one in four or less are funded. I’ve listened to reports of those who report research findings in conference presentations only to have their work torn apart in question sessions, forcing them to go back and correct mistakes in their research process. I’ve observed the agonizing process of writing articles for academic journals in one’s field–articles that are sometimes rejected, at other times are returned with reviewer critiques that must be addressed before re-submission, and sometimes published only to be challenged by other researchers who cannot reproduce the purported results under the same conditions. The price for deliberate fraud is high. One is basically black-balled.

That’s what research scientists do. They are part of a scientific community relentlessly (and sometimes ruthlessly) committed to attaining ever-closer approximations to understanding the truth about the physical cosmos around us. Scientists don’t always agree on theories or the significance of research findings. Sometimes, a dedicated researcher or group of researchers will persist 40 years (basically their working life) to substantiate a theory, sometimes changing the ways scientists think about some aspect of their field. Often they replace a workable, mostly right theory, with one that works even better. It’s a process without shortcuts that takes time, and a good deal of money. But their work has yielded space shots and smartphones, cancer treatments and eradicated small pox and nearly eradicated polio.

Why do I write about this? I write because the work of these people is under attack. People are fostering the notion that these people are not to be trusted, that their reports on things like the earth’s climate and our contribution to climate conditions are nothing more than a deep state conspiracy. It is one thing to write such things when you are talking about some distant “them” you may never have personally encountered. I have friends who do this work, and they are mystified by this. Many would say they don’t have a political bone in their bodies because their research is so engrossing. There are many who share my faith. There are many others who don’t. At the lab bench and the scientific conference, it doesn’t make a difference. It comes down to how good your research is. My friends are usually among the first to cry out against those who make false claims in the name of science. Truth matters that much to them.

There are those who use science to advance political or ideological agendas. They are usually popularizers who either never wore a lab coat, or have given it up but use their reputation to bolster their claims. One may think here of ethologist Richard Dawkins who cherry picks scientific studies to support his militant atheism. One research study shows that most British scientists believe he misrepresents science. Others cherry pick science to support their particular view of biblical creation. Both approaches use science to answer questions science was not intended to answer. Most research scientists I know, no matter what they believe, want no part in any of this, except to go on the record that this misappropriates science.

It is axiomatic that when a particular group attacks a group of “them,” be they scientists or immigrants or home schoolers, we would be wise to recognize that the attack is primarily designed to garner support for that group, and to use a grain of salt in assessing their attack. I would suggest, in the case of science, that if you really care about truth and don’t want to be “faked” that you go and meet some real scientists at your local college or university. Ask yourself, “do I personally know any scientists?” Most Americans do not, which makes them an easy target.

I don’t absolutely trust science, in the way I do God. Any scientist worth his or her salt wouldn’t want me to. Most often, they present their research in terms of confidence levels or intervals, such as a 95% probability that a predicted result will occur, or results within a certain range will occur. Most of us formally or informally act with confidence even when probabilities are not that high. At what percentage of rain chances will you carry an umbrella or rain gear? At what odds will you place a bet on your favorite team?

So when scientists who have worked through the rigorous process I have described publish results and their work has survived the rigorous winnowing process of peer review, I’m willing to place confidence in the work of this scientific community. That doesn’t mean a better theory might not replace it at some point. Newton’s understanding of gravity still works pretty well in most cases, even though Einstein’s theory offers a better account. All of life is like this. But that’s a far cry from believing scientists are purposefully deceiving us. At the end of the day I’m far more inclined to place confidence in the scientists than the deniers. There is no comparable process to the peer review and criticism process for deniers who often just have to put something on the internet. So in whom are you going to place your confidence?

 

2 thoughts on “Why I Have Confidence in the Work of Research Scientists

  1. Thanks, Bob! Great post. You address well the question of the “bad apples.” Meaning, though there are the occasional individual scientists who allow political, religious or other bias to skew their work, you can find those exceptions on each side of whatever “aisle” you choose (conservative or liberal, Christian or atheist, etc), and a few bad apples out of millions doesn’t mean you burn down the orchard they came from! I think, though, that certain group-think “scientific biases” also exist, in which certain ideas are discouraged by the consensus of the majority of the scientific community, so that it takes uncommon individual courage to push through with research, or to publish conclusions that contradict the accepted wisdom. Thus “scientific progress” can be held back, in certain areas, for a generation or two, though I think science continues to “gets there in the end.” The scientific community is, in many ways, like all cultural communities; prone to adopt and reinforce certain cultural prejudices and blinders, and to resist quite vigorously culture change in those areas, consciously or unconsciously. So what’s the point? I’m not sure! I think my personal point is that I see myself as a strong and enthusiastic proponent of science, but I never want to become a blind or blanket supporter. My belief in science is like the scientists’ belief in science – a matter of probabilities, 99% here, 80% there. Anyway, just adding to the conversation!

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