What is Science?

Do you believe in science, or do you not believe in science? Hopefully neither, because science is not a belief system. Science is not something you believe or don’t believe in. Neither is science a monolith. As Arthur C. Clarke said, “For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert.” Science is description, not prescription. Science does not tell you what to do—it gives you data.

Science is more a verb than a noun. It is a process of testing a hypothesis through observation, experimentation, and the collection of data. With the scientific method you state a hypothesis then try to prove it wrong. If a scientist is unable to prove their hypothesis wrong, it might be right. Other scientists must then try to prove the hypothesis wrong. “Science” is whatever remains after all alternative hypotheses have been disproven.

Scientific data may include probabilities and statistics for different scenarios and potential risks for actions or inactions. What you do about that data and how you weigh those trade-offs is up to the individual. It must be, because each individual is unique. Only the individual knows the best choice to make with scientific data based on their personal health history, lifestyle, and risk propensity—and most of all their values.

Different people value different things at different stages of their lives. One scientific policy does not and cannot fit all. This applies to diet, health, and every other hot-button area of science that is currently being debated, with one side saying the other does not “believe” in science. Again, science is not a belief system; science is a process of accumulating data. Two people can believe the same scientific data but come to wildly different decisions about what to do with that data. Neither side is right or wrong, per se, as science cannot tell you what to do about anything involving value judgments. The most important thing to understand about value judgments is that value is subjective. Science gives you data, then individuals must decide what to do with that data personally and debate what to do about it as a society.

There is a desire among some to outsource the decisions for all of society to a select group of experts. “Do what the experts say,” they say. First, see the Arthur C. Clarke quote above. Various experts on any given topic invariably disagree. There is rarely ever a surefire solution in the realm of scientific policy-making because any decision comes with trade-offs, whether anticipated or unforeseen. Furthermore, there is no greater expert about an individual’s life than that very individual. An expert can provide data and recommendations based on experience, which an individual can evaluate, but no expert is in a position to mandate what other individuals must do.

Follow the Science?

Many people mistakenly think that they “follow the science” and are doing what “the science says” while other people “don’t believe in science” because they’re “not doing what the science says.” But that’s entirely misunderstanding science and what it tells us. What science says and what the media, politicians, and corporations say the science says are entirely different things. Science never says what to do; science is simply data.

Science isn’t even what scientists say because scientists can misinterpret their own data. Or they can be biased in selecting certain data to highlight which supports their hypothesis while ignoring other inconvenient data regardless of its robustness. Individuals should ideally evaluate scientific data themselves rather than merely the media’s spin on it which often includes value judgements based on their vested interests. Even data can be fudged and portrayed to reveal desired results (see p-hacking and the replication crisis). Always consider the financial incentives of those promoting a particular scientific claim.

One can become conspiratorial in wondering how it’s decided which data is deemed THE science and which scientists are appointed as THE experts. While there may sometimes be nefarious ulterior motives for such decisions, more often than not it’s a result of cognitive biases. Confirmation bias causes people to only seek and accept evidence they already agree with, and cognitive dissonance causes people to dismiss information that contradicts their personal values. Whether they are conscious of it or not, people in power (of institutions such as the government, universities, the media and other corporations) will naturally listen to those who tell them what they want to hear.

What is often seen today is the weaponization (and politicization) of science—people cherry-picking certain data, declaring that to be the only science on the matter, then using it to force their value judgements on others. To successfully do this they must censor any scientific data that goes contrary to their agenda, labeling it as “fake news,” “misinformation,” “pseudoscience,” or “conspiracy theory,” rather than rigorously examining the alternative evidence and fairly evaluating its merit. Or they may straw-man alternative viewpoints, distorting them to seem more preposterous than they truly are. When people say, “Follow the science,” what they really mean to say is, “Follow my narrow interpretation of one sliver of science, and ignore all other data including alternative interpretations of my data.”

The term “science-denier” is thrown around a lot today, but it is really only the extreme fringes of society that literally don’t believe in science—as in they reject scientific data out of hand—such as believing the earth is flat. Most people “believe in science” in that they accept scientific data. That data may indicate probabilities and risk factors, but what to do about that data is debatable. Individuals will weigh different risks based on their personal health, wealth, and values, and as a result will make different choices in life. Just because two people come to different conclusions about what to do with scientific data does not mean one believes in science and the other denies science. It means they have different values in life and different propensities for risk. There is a difference between denying science and denying someone’s value judgment pertaining to science.

Trust the Experts?

Anyone who says to “trust” scientists is not a true scientist. The entire scientific method is built on the premise of constantly questioning the scientific claims of others. This is why saying “believe science” and “trust the experts” while censoring any information contrary to the currently “accepted science” is so dangerous. Questioning science is not anti-science; censoring the questioning of science is anti-science. Science is literally the questioning of science.

The job of a scientist is to disbelieve science—to try everything they possibly can to disprove the scientific claims of others. Only when enough attempts to disprove a hypothesis have failed do you start to believe that maybe the original hypothesis is not wrong. You still cannot say with certainty that the hypothesis is right or “true.” Science can never say anything is true—it can only prove things false. The more hypotheses are proven false, the closer you get toward truth. Science is a process of continually questioning science. The moment science is stopped being questioned it is no longer science.

This is why no scientific claims alternative to the consensus should ever be censored. If the alternatives are false, then prove so with science, not censorship. Any student of history will discover much heterodox “pseudoscience” from the past has since become mainstream orthodox science. No doubt science considered pseudo today will become consensus in the future. Science that proclaims absolute certainty on anything is not science but “scientism,” which is a propagandized distortion of science reduced to dogmatic ideology more akin to religion. Those in power anoint their preferred experts as infallibly venerated clergy, and anyone who doubts these holy experts (regardless of their own expertise and evidence) must be excommunicated from media platforms so their heresy cannot be heard by the innocent ears of the masses.

I took a jab at flat-earthers earlier, but I would never advocate censoring them or any other alternative scientific theories no matter how seemingly outlandish. Science needs heterodox thinkers to constantly question even the most basic of accepted consensus—that’s the only way true progress in science is made. If a scientific theory is true, over time the majority of people will accept it because failing to do so will harm either their health or wealth. For example: if you build a rocket based on flat-earth physics, it will crash and burn (or fail to launch). Only by intervention through regulation and censorship can falsities out-compete truth. A greater danger than the spreading of “fake news” and “misinformation” is the censorship of heterodox ideas which later turn out to have been correct.

The history of science is littered with wild claims completely contrary to intuition and consensus being mocked and ridiculed by the establishment, then years later those theories become accepted as having been right all along. Oops. The first scientist who said disease was caused by minuscule “germs” invisible to the human eye was considered insane by the mainstream scientific community at the time… until it turned out he was right. There is undoubtedly science today considered “alternative pseudoscience” and “conspiracy theory” which will become accepted mainstream scientific consensus in the future. Certainly not all—much alternative pseudoscience is bunk—but we cannot know which heterodox ideas are valid unless they are all heard out. Even if 99% of alternative theories are wrong, the 1% that are right will have been worth it.

The Science is Settled?

Scientific consensus is constantly changing. No science is ever “settled.” Just look at how much the food pyramid has changed over the decades. Remember, it was once a settled “scientific fact” that the earth was flat, but now everyone laughs at those who still believe that. Science is not the Truth, but a quest to be less wrong. This means all current science is almost certainly wrong to some degree, in that it is not the final and ultimate Truth on the matter. Science is always (ideally) progressing toward truth, but it is never the full and final truth (see Gödel’s incompleteness theorems). Some science is less wrong than others, but no science is ever infallible.

That doesn’t mean science is worthless. To the contrary, as incomplete as current scientific data may be, it can still be extremely valuable in helping to weigh cost-benefit analyses when deciding what is best to do for yourself and your health. Plus the continual advancement of technology enables scientists to capture more and more accurate data. However, recognize what science actually is (data derived through observation and experimentation) and what the limits of that data are. Know that the best scientific decision will always be different for various members of society. What is right for one may be wrong for another. This is not a critique of science—I love science—but what many people today call “science” and lambast others for not “believing” is not at all science.

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