Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Science is Not Truth

SPOTLIGHT: As the influence of religion has waned, we’ve placed science on a pedestal – mistaking it for an oracle of truth.

BIG PICTURE: Richard Harris has written a startling book about the state of medical research. The preface to Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions includes a warning about scientific naivety:

Most of science is built on inference rather than direct observation…Science progresses by testing ideas indirectly, throwing out the ones that seem wrong…Gradually, scientists build stories that do a better job of approximating the truth. But at any given moment, there are parallel narratives, sometimes sharply at odds with one another. Scientists rely on their own individual judgments to decide which stories come closer to the truth…Some stories that seem on the fringe today will become the accepted narrative some years from now. (italics added)

During the years I’ve spent examining the climate debate, I’ve tried to communicate precisely these ideas. Millions of people think there’s a climate crisis because ‘science says.’ But in addition to being hazy and incomplete, that science relies on indirect reasoning and judgment calls.

Scientists, being human, are susceptible to bias, group-think, self-interest, and tribalism. We often hear that 97% of scientists think climate change is caused primarily by human beings. This, let us be clear, is an opinion.

Ideas championed by the greatest minds of one era are frequently tossed into the dustbin by the next. Google eugenics. Or continental drift. Or germ theory. Or stomach ulcers.

For decades, Pluto was a planet. Then it wasn’t. As a non-scientist, I once thought such matters were straightforward. I was naive.

TOP TAKEAWAY: In Harris’ words, scientists “are groping around at the edges of knowledge.” This means we need to be careful, indeed, when basing laws and government policies on scientific findings.


Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions
Richard Harris

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This entry was posted on April 16, 2018 by in quotations and tagged , .
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