Should we be sceptical of science itself?

Plenty of today’s scientific theories will one day be discredited. So should we be sceptical of science itself? Anthony Gottlieb explains …

Good sense is the most fairly distributed commodity in the world, Descartes once quipped, because nobody thinks he needs any more of it than he already has. A neat illustration of the fact that gullibility seems to be a disease of other people was provided by Martin Gardner, a great American debunker of pseudoscience, who died this year. In the second edition of his “Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science” (1957), Gardner reported that most of the irate letters he received in response to the first edition criticised only one of its 26 chapters and found the rest to be fine. Needless to say, readers disagreed about which chapter was the faulty one. Homeopaths objected to the treatment meted out to themselves, but thought that the exposé of chiropractors was spot on, and vice versa.

No group of believers has more reason to be sure of its own good sense than today’s professional scientists. There is, or should be, no mystery about why it is always more rational to believe in science than in anything else, because this is true merely by definition. What makes a method of enquiry count as scientific is not that it employs microscopes, rats, computers or people in stained white coats, but that it seeks to test itself at every turn. If a method is as rigorous and cautious as it can be, it counts as good science; if it isn’t, it doesn’t. Yet this fact sets a puzzle. If science is careful scepticism writ large, shouldn’t a scientific cast of mind require one to be sceptical of science itself?

There is no full-blown logical paradox here. If a claim is ambitious, people should indeed tread warily around it, even if it comes from scientists; it does not follow that they should be sceptical of the scientific method itself. But there is an awkward public-relations challenge for any champion of hard-nosed science. When scientists confront the deniers of evolution, or the devotees of homeopathic medicine, or people who believe that childhood vaccinations cause autism—all of whom are as demonstrably mistaken as anyone can be—they understandably fight shy of revealing just how riddled with error and misleading information the everyday business of science actually is. When you paint yourself as a defender of the truth, it helps to keep quiet about how often you are wrong.


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