"If science is careful scepticism writ large, shouldn’t a
scientific cast of mind require one to be sceptical of science itself?"
inquires Economist editor Anthony Gottlieb in an essay
for More Intelligent Life
Throughout history, he explains, most scientific theories—including ones today—end up being disproved in favor of new ideas. This is inherent to the method. Scientists are understandably reluctant to acknowledge "how
riddled with error and misleading information the everyday business of
science actually is" when confronting people with strong, unscientific beliefs. But given that most theories will eventually be disproved, how seriously should we take scientists
when they come up with a "ground-breaking" discovery?
It is perhaps
the biases of science reporting in the popular press that produce the
most misinformation, especially in medicine. The faintest whiff of a
breakthrough treatment for a common disease is news, yet the fact that
yesterday’s breakthrough didn’t pan out—which ought to be equally
interesting to a seeker after truth—rarely is.
Even the vaunted process of "peer-reviewed" academic journals can oftentimes obscure holes in the process:
laymen probably assume that the 350-year-old institution of “peer
review”, which acts as a gatekeeper to publication in scientific
journals, involves some attempt to check the articles that see the light
of day. In fact they are rarely checked for accuracy, and, as a study
for the Fraser Institute, a Canadian think-tank, reported last year,
“the data and computational methods are so seldom disclosed that
post-publication verification is equally rare.”
Nevertheless, once we understand these flaws, science remains the best too to discover universal, empirical truth:
contest is not a zero-sum game: the shortcomings of science do not make
it rational to believe cranks instead. It’s a fair bet that many of
today’s scientific beliefs are wrong, but only your grandchildren will
know which ones, and in the meantime, science is the only game in town.
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