When to Ask and When to Trust » Yale Climate Communications

When scientific topics become controversial with the public, as with climate change and COVID-19, the public is often divided into aspects of “skeptical of science” or “trust of science”. It is important to understand, however, that there is more to these concepts than can fit on a bumper sticker.

Questioning scientific understanding is fundamentally important to scientific progress. All good scientists are skeptical about everything to do with science, especially when it comes to their scientific field of specialization. But doubt does not mean rejection.

The best skeptics think carefully about information and simply put their ideas into three general categories:

1. Conditional acceptance as reasonable;

2. Conditional rejection as unreasonable. And

3. Refrain from judging until more is known.

Scientific experts in a particular field really understand what ideas fit which category. They are immersed in research for years and often decades, whether they are reading papers and, more importantly, doing actual research: they see the strengths and weaknesses of arguments on the topic more clearly than others can. In addition, they are subject to peer review, the usually modest process of having other experts judge their work before it is published (or can’t).

Who among us is an excellent judge on…everything?

(To the readers who are screaming at their screens right now for seeing themselves as perfectly good judges of everything, you respectfully are wrong. And please do not associate enlightened judgment with liking or disliking an idea.)

Of course, individual scientists have biases that may influence such decisions, although good scientists try very hard to ensure that their opinions are motivated by evidence and not by factors such as politics. It is not possible for any scientist – or, for that matter, any human being – to be completely Objective, which is why the collective opinion of many experts is more important than a single opinion.

Political bias, for example, is a factor Probably Introducing bias in the opinion of scientists in areas such as climate change and COVID-19. Ideally, experts span the spectrum of political beliefs and balance these biases, but that’s usually not the case, as shown in a 2009 Pew Research Center survey that found most scholars to be moderate or liberal. The relatively small percentage of conservatives is alarming.

Differences between “big picture” and “small picture” ideas

But just as experts must make judgments based on evidence and not politics, the same goes for people who criticize experts. An effective argument that liberal politics drives climate change research findings, for example, needs to be supported by strong evidence and not just by assumptions that correlation implies causation.

An important factor in assessing the degree of consensus relates to what can be considered a measure of ideas. Almost all experts would agree on “big picture ideas,” such as that human actions play an important role in contemporary climate change, and that wearing masks reduces the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, intense arguments could revolve around “small picture ideas,” such as the accuracy with which we capture all the effects of clouds in climate models, and exactly how much COVID-19 is transmitted in different indoor settings.

Another example comes from a debate that gets less public attention these days: evolution. Almost all professional biologists accept that natural selection drives biological evolution (the big picture), but there are still intense debates about how genes are involved in the changes that occur to species (the small picture).

General disagreements mostly involve big-picture data, and disagreement about small points is different from disagreement about big points. Of course, all scientific ideas, even the big ones, may change, but change is much less likely than in smaller picture concepts.

Government policy decisions, which are the focus of most public debate on science, must, of course, be based on sound science. However, the policy requires a broader vision. Climate change policy, for example, requires a deep understanding of climate science, but it must also have economic and social ramifications for different policies. Ideally, experts in each of the three areas would generally agree to accept the idea of ​​the big picture in their area as “reasonably accepted.” In this case, climate, economics and sociology can be weighed to find the best policy to implement. If, as with COVID-19 in 2020, a policy must be implemented before experts can agree on the “reasonable” category, policymakers need to consult with a number of experts and develop the best policy under the circumstances. The public must then be informed that the policy is based on the current best understanding, but that it may change as new research findings become available. Admittedly, such general notification is not always easy to implement in the real world.

For lay people, and for a scholar who isn’t a field-specialist, “trusting the science” (also coined as “follow the science” and “the science is real”) involves figuring out where experts collectively put an idea into the three options listed above. .

As the British philosopher Bertrand Russell said nearly a century ago…

This approach is not a new concept, and the same basic idea was introduced by British philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1928.:

Even when the experts all agree, they may be wrong. Einstein’s view regarding the magnitude of the deflection of light by gravity had been rejected by all experts several years earlier, yet it proved to be correct. However, expert opinion, when unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts because it is more likely to be correct than the opposite opinion. The skepticism I defend only amounts to this:

(1) that when experts agree, the opposite opinion cannot be asserted;

(2) that if they are not in agreement, a non-expert opinion cannot be considered affirmative; And

(3) That when they all see that there are insufficient grounds for a favorable opinion, it is better for the common man to suspend his judgment.

These assumptions may seem moderate, however, if accepted, they will revolutionize human life.

It is clear that we are still grappling with the same problem after nearly 100 years.

Have you given a simplified overview of a very complex reality? Definitely. But this is how we can begin to understand something. Learning, like science, is a never ending process.

Jeffrey A. Lee is a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Texas Tech University. He is the author of The Scientific Endeavor: A Primer on Scientific Principles and Practice (2016).

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