Harvard professor explains why science is safe to trust

Editor’s note, Nov. 16, 10:50 p.m.: This story has been updated throughout.

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Society should trust science because it’s a long, time-tested process of accumulated expertise, Harvard University Professor of the History of Science Naomi Oreskes, Ph.D said Thursday night.

Speaking at the Dedman College Interdisciplinary Institute’s annual Allman Family Lecture, Oreskes explained that some of society’s misconceptions of science exist because most people cannot judge whether or not a scientific finding is true. Most people assume the risk of accepting science is smaller than the risk of rejecting it. Parents vaccinate their children because the risk of precautionary vaccinating is smaller than the risk of not vaccinating and suffering potentially harmful consequences.

“Scientific knowledge is the intellectual and social consensus of affiliated experts who worked together in groups who judge evidence and weight of evidence,” Oreskes said.

But society is more skeptical of scientific findings today and frequently rejects science out of distrust.

“The larger issue is how to reduce the number of those who deny,” said Caroline Brettell, the institute’s director. “How do we build up the trust?”

About 70 people attended the lecture in Dallas Hall’s McCord Auditorium. Many in the audience were students or educators.

“I was excited to hear Dr. Oreskes work because she provides a history of how science has been conducted through time,” said Michael Aiuvalasit, an anthropology graduate student at SMU. “It helps inform some of the good debates we have about using science.”

Oreskes explained that scientific findings are determined by evidence. Scientists judge the evidence and reach a consensus on it. While consensus itself isn’t the goal, reaching a consensus means that something is probably right. Oreskes called it a “social marker” of truth. If common scientific findings are repeatable and come from a group, they carry more weight.

Time is the essential component that assures people that findings are accurate. Oreskes compared scientific findings to the evolution of a car. The car didn’t get to its modern-day reliable state because of Henry Ford’s genius, but because of one hundred years of automotive experts who have worked to perfect it using issues that arose from it. The reason that cars and science work most of the time is because of the accumulated expertise of many people working together for a long period of time using a diverse and time-tested methodology.

Oreskes cautioned against believing a single person’s one-time finding, calling it nonsense that’s not time-tested or replicated. She said media and newspapers overhype one finding or one study, but citizens need to wait for it to be replicated. When it is replicated, it becomes pretty reasonable knowledge that is trustworthy.

“Let go of the idea that science gives us absolute truth and replace it with the notion of reasonable, reliable knowledge that you can trust,” Oreskes said.

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