scientist in a laboratory

Why you need scientific authority

Science means a lot to you. You may not know this or perhaps you do and take it for granted. Some are even in denial about science when it is time to accept the power of legitimate science and use it wisely…

The device that brings this post to you is a product of science. As is the panadol you took for that nasty headache that just melted away, not to mention gran’s hip replacement surgery. 

Science also helped to bring you the $5 burger from your favourite outlet. The supply chain that delivered that morsel of deliciousness is up to the cow’s eyeballs in technology. 

Yes, folks, the scientific method is not just used by geeks. 

All of society from health professionals to toothpaste manufacturers use science and the evidence it generates.

The scientific method — the logic of hypothesis testing through experimentation — is the proven best way to find out what works and what does not. This allows knowledge to make leaps that would take way too long by trial and error. 

Science has helped us understand the laws of nature. This means we don’t always have to start from scratch every time we need a solution to one problem or another.

Modern engineers use a pile of laws of nature that were first figured out by the likes of Galileo, Newton, Einstein and their mates; all scientists. 

What these fellows and those who followed found out made it easier and safer to construct buildings, railways, bridges, ships and eventually rockets that made it to Mars and beyond. 

There is no doubt that the industrial revolution was about energy, coal and then oil, and the mobilisation of capital that became possible on the back of it, but science gave the revolution impetus. 

Science helped create your car, your phone, the wi-fi signal in your house, the streaming service you enjoy so much, the microwave oven, the uniform colour and size of the capsicums in your fridge, not to mention the milk. 

Who knows where the fundamentals applied to technology will take us next. 

In short, science matters to us all. 

reasearcher identifies insects in an ecology laboratory

Science denial 

Given all the obvious use and benefits of science to society, what’s with science denial? Why deny the obvious? 

The denial of science and undermining of scientists is as old as science itself.  Our modern examples of post-truth, alternative facts, and fake news sit alongside the biblical prophets, the church through the ages, and the need to believe in miracles. People denied science because science is a head-on challenge to all faith-based religions and mysticism. 

It turns out that denial of science was the prevalent paradigm until the Enlightenment. This period of history in the 1600’s, also known as the Age of Reason, illuminated intellect and culture from the darkness of the Middle Ages through concepts such as reason, liberty and the scientific method. 

You can sum up the logic that gave us the age of reason fairly simply. 

Why fight over religion? 

Surely it is more enlightening to voyage far and wide to discover the world and use deduction (the scientific method) to look into how the world works with the singular motive of truth. Surely this is better than the ‘bible tells me so’ explanation. 

Enough people thought this way to go against the mainstream and question the traditional thinking that came mostly from religious texts and the culture that was built around them. In time, what they found out changed the mainstream. 

Applied correctly, deduction through the scientific method generates facts and helps put facts together into evidence. The world became round, revolved around the sun, and many of nature’s wonders were understood.

The accumulation of facts generates authority and with it the ability to influence others. In 1947, the German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber defined authority as ‘power wielded legitimately’ bestowing also some moral high ground to influence.

However, there is more to modern science denial than a challenge to our deep dependency on deities.

Contemporary science deniers have not one (religious) motive, but many — greed, fear, bias, convenience, profits, politics — to which they cling with various degrees of sincerity and cynicism.

Robert P Crease

This great quote from Robert Crease comes from an article talking about his new book The Workshop and the World: What Ten Thinkers Can Teach Us About Science and Authority Robert P. Crease, W. W. Norton (2019)

We suspect that the motives he lists are very powerful. 

They extend the religious imperatives to the psychology of the individual. Here we deal with fear and ego and insecurity; a heap of negative energy in the world that manifests in motives of profit, politics and power.

If denial helps achieve the fruits of these motives then it will happen, no matter how much science has provided to society. 

Science becomes part of the furniture

Scientific authority has been an important part of how western culture has developed. 

Indeed, it should make good sense to cede authority to scientists given they generate and are in possession of the facts. Plus they have the training to interpret the facts into evidence. They know what the average Joe cannot. 

When this evidence is about how to send a rocket into space and predicting the weather from data beamed back down from the satellite that the rocket deposited up there, Joe is more than happy to defer to the scientific authority. 

It makes sense, is something he cannot know on his own, and he verifies the evidence every day he forgets to take his umbrella to work.

Where evidence has solidified into the laws of physics that work, ‘drop an egg and if it falls onto the floor tiles it will break’ these laws that science generates are immutable to even the sternest sceptic. 

Some scientific authority, especially evidence not yet consolidated into a natural law, we will never understand and this is easily ignored without too much of a problem. Quantum mechanics we don’t need to know works. Whatever is going on in the world of tiny particles it doesn’t matter as long as the egg breaks when it’s dropped on the kitchen floor or doesn’t when eased gently into the frying pan.

The reality here is that some science has to be taken on faith by the non-specialists, those not trained in the intricacies of the method. This is a good reason why the logic of the scientific method has to be on every high school curriculum and taught well so that the approach is understood and, especially, the reasons why healthy scepticism is at the heart of high-quality science.

insect taxonomy requires a lot if sample bottles

Authority is trumped by values

There are some areas where scientific authority causes a problem. 

If some science nerd comes along and wields power legitimately but says that if I convert this forest to a palm oil plantation it will destroy biodiversity and many vital ecosystem services, not to mention the addition of millions of tons of carbon to the atmosphere, well, now I might not be so happy if I stand to make a handy profit from the palm oil. 

Likely I will trump his scientific authority with my economic one. 

In a blink, we are into values territory and this is not an argument over authority but one of opinion and choice.

This problem of competing values is at the root of much science denial. Sometimes we simply don’t like what evidence tells us.

The chance to spin

Science is good at evidence. 

Done well, science is very good but there is still a bit of uncertainty around. The laws work but they do not easily explain all the attributes and behaviours of complex systems. 

There are patterns not easily explained and often what appears to be randomness in the natural world. This makes full, fearless explanations difficult. It is why you will often hear a scientist sitting on the fence, unable to give a definitive answer, yes or no. Complex systems still hold many secrets from us.

And as soon as there is even a hint of hesitation or uncertainty or cause and effect connections breaking down, then suddenly all bets are off. 

A crack appears and spin enters. Suddenly the koala is going extinct before the end of the next election cycle.

Typically when spin is around the evidence is corrupted and we are back to denial. 

What sustainably FED suggests…

Scientific authority is one of the main reasons humanity has generated so much material success. It has helped us build technologies and any number of engineering solutions to improve our daily lives.

We use evidence from science to feed, clothe, shelter and power close to 8 billion souls and will need it more and more to keep these folk sufficiently resourced not to fight each other all the time.

Denial of scientific authority makes no sense given what it has done for us. 

It also makes no sense to deny science when we are faced with global and local problems that can’t be wished away but have to be solved. 

So, sustainably FED suggests we accept the power of legitimate science and use it wisely because it might just stop us from killing each other. 

And nothing is more useful than that.

If you are not sure about how science works and would like to know more, we have eCourses that cover all aspects of the scientific method and how it generates evidence.

Why not Sign up for a taste or the whole program.

sustainably FED

Mark

Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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