Leaving the Church of Science
“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” - John 8:32
We're all going to die. Someone somewhere reading this might die today. And on our indeterminately long journey between now and death, we try our best to not wake up terrified every day of just how finite life is.
Our best tool in this struggle is knowledge. The more we know, the fewer things we have to be scared about. Imagine if you had zero knowledge about what foods were toxic and every bite was a roll of the dice. Dinner parties would be considerably less fun.
Over the millennia we've developed a handful of ways to "know" things. Induction is the simplest. Every morning the sun rises, so I feel reasonably confident it will rise again tomorrow. Mathematical proof is another. You don't need to go measure a bunch of right triangles to guess at the Pythagorean theorem, you can produce it purely from mathematics.
Epistemologists have argued for decades over what "knowledge" really is. One easy definition is "justified true belief." If you believe something true, and you're justified in believing it, then you know it. But as Edmund Gettier shows with his "Gettier problems," this doesn't really cut it:
"Imagine that you are standing outside a field. You see, within it, what looks exactly like a sheep. What belief instantly occurs to you? Among the many that could have done so, it happens to be the belief that there is a sheep in the field. And in fact you are right, because there is a sheep behind the hill in the middle of the field. You cannot see that sheep, though, and you have no direct evidence of its existence. Moreover, what you are seeing is a dog, disguised as a sheep. Hence, you have a well justified true belief that there is a sheep in the field. But is that belief knowledge?" - Source
You could spend an entire Philosophy Ph.D program trying to come up with a good theory of knowledge and we still wouldn't have a concrete answer on what "Knowledge" is. And unfortunately, I'm unlikely to provide a good definition in my weekly ramblings here either. So we'll have to go with some form of "justified true belief" for now.
Induction is one way we arrive at justified true belief. Experience is another. Logic, deducing new conclusions from a set of verified premises, another. And the scientific method is of course another one as well.
Does faith produce knowledge? I think faith fills in the gaps. When we get to the limits of what we can experience, logically deduce, or experiment with, we must resort to faith. No amount of university funding will tell us what happens when we die or whether humans are inherently good. We need other tools for that.
It's easy to say that having faith in life after death is very different from having proof of life after death. Math and faith are polar opposites. But where do the other forms of knowledge fall? "Knowing" the sun will rise tomorrow is ultimately still an act of faith in your past examples. It is not math. Logical deduction feels like Math, but one of your premises could still be faulty.
What about science? Where does science land on the Faith to Math spectrum?
I’d argue that Science is the process of moving beliefs along the Faith - Math spectrum. It adds explanatory power to our various beliefs so we have knowledge closer to Math to hang those beliefs on and do not need to rely as much on Faith. There is still an element of Faith involved, but the more science we do around an idea, the more Math-y we should feel about it.
Let's use the sun rising as an example. We knew surprisingly early that the earth was round and the sun and moon were some other sorts of bodies really far away. But there was certainly some point in pre-history when we believed the sun was magic or a god, and if we pissed it off it might not come back tomorrow. Can you imagine the chaos of a solar eclipse?
Once we developed the theory of gravity and planetary motion we had a much better base for our belief that the sun will rise tomorrow. It was no longer just induction, there was a mathematical relationship between the Earth and Sun causing them to orbit around each other, which when combined with the Earth's rotation gave rise to our day / night cycle as well as seasons and plenty of other phenomena. We could feel a little more secure in these beliefs because we had more explanatory power behind them thanks to science.
The process for this shifting of beliefs away from Faith and towards Math is the scientific method. In the simplest form, that method goes:
A question is raised or a phenomenon is observed
A hypothesis is formed to provide an answer
An experiment is designed to try to disprove the hypothesis
Data is collected and a conclusion is formed
What good science tries to do is attack a hypothesis from all sides to disprove it. To find a way in which it is incomplete so it can be improved. The more hypotheses we can discard, the closer we are to finding ones with good explanatory power.
It's important to highlight the difference between falsification and proof. The scientific method does not prove anything. It only fails to falsify. We often think of "failing to falsify" and "proving" as the same thing, but they're very different in a very important way. When we say a drug is “safe,” what we’re really saying is that we haven’t found any meaningful ways in which it is harmful.
Science is a process of progressive belief development, and the fields in which we're attempting to do science greatly affect how close to math those beliefs can get. Physics is almost entirely math, so those experiments and scientific theories tend to be much closer to the Math side of the spectrum. But psychology is much closer to belief, or philosophy, which is why the "science" done there so often fails reproduction and needs to be thrown out. You can't apply math-like predictive axioms to human decision-making. We're too squishy.
But we've forgotten that all science can do is falsify hypotheses. It's a process for belief refinement through falsification. It does not prove things. It gives us reasons to rely less on faith, and more on math, when trying to know certain things about the world. That's all it can do.
In the last two years, we've developed an exciting new way to "other" someone: by saying they "don't trust science."
The accusation reveals the confusion of the accuser though. Science is a process, and very few people take issue with the scientific method itself. What people have an issue with are the questions of who is doing the science, and how is the science being reported.
There are three layers to our knowledge of science:
The scientific method itself
How the scientific method was used to arrive at some result
How that result is interpreted and presented to others
I'm just old enough to remember trying to learn something before the Internet. We had encyclopedias at home, and when I was curious about some science question I would have to leaf through the encyclopedia until I found the corresponding entry. This worked fine for more math-y topics like Physics and Chemistry, but it broke down on more challenging topics like nutrition.
I grew up in the era when you were supposed to eat 11 servings of grain a day and avoid fat at all costs. Those were the health recommendations from the FDA based on science. And it's not my fault or my parent’s fault that we followed them. There wasn't much way to know better. We didn't have access to the information we'd need to question them.
I also remember being an awkward pubescent teenager with acne. The resources at our disposal for researching what to do about acne were few and far between, so I saw a dermatologist. That dermatologist prescribed me doxycycline, a broad-spectrum antibiotic which I was then on for years to try to treat my acne. That’s a disgusting miscarriage of medicine and I shudder to think about what it did to my health for those years. But again, I didn’t know better, and it was hard to access any information to challenge their recommendation.
We all learned about the scientific method in school. Then we're told (or just assume?) that Scientists use the Scientific Method to create Science and that Science is distributed to us by trusted authorities. We learned about the method and received the results, but there was never any way to investigate the process. We just had to trust that Science was being used with the utmost diligence and that the authorities disseminating scientific knowledge to us were being honest and accurate.
Then the Internet happened. Suddenly we could investigate the process, and some stuff just wasn't adding up. Science wasn't this idyllic, magical truth machine being used by judicious benevolent Prometheans attempting to bring fire to the people. It was a tool like any tool. Some people were using the tool for corrupt ends, and many of the people we were trusting to interpret the science for us had no idea what they were talking about.
We’d hear "Drinking red wine may increase your lifespan!" and then when we check the reporter's research it turns out their "science" was one study of giving impossibly high doses of resveratrol to mice.
We'd hear "cutting out meat makes you healthier" and it would turn out the study compared people on the Standard American Diet of McDonalds and Coca Cola to people who altered their diet, which included cutting out meat.
We'd hear about "heart-healthy" cooking oils like Canola, then discover the science showing their cardiovascular benefits were done by the Canola industry.
We heard about the dangers of fat, and it turned out that research was paid for by the sugar industry.
Anyone who starts investigating how the scientific method has been used to arrive at different conclusions for the last hundred years quickly learns a couple things:
A lot of science is bad science.
A lot of science reporting is bad reporting.
There's nothing wrong with the scientific method. But there is something wrong with assuming all science is done to the highest standards, and with assuming everyone reporting on science knows what they're talking about and is free of their own biases.
So comes the rise in people "doing their own research." They're obviously not conducting their own experiments. They are trying to find the scientific literature themselves to interpret it, instead of trusting the sources we now know to be fallible to do the reporting for them.
But reading the literature ourselves is a very new thing. 25 years ago it would have been exceptionally hard to find the research studies backing up a claim. Today you can do it in a few minutes on Google Scholar. And we're only now starting to see the fallout from this dramatic change in access to information.
Historically you had a clear methodology to decide who to trust to interpret Science for you. People who worked for prestigious universities or government institutions probably knew what they were doing. And crucially, they were the only ones with access to the information, so you had to rely on them to interpret it for you.
Now that's not the case. You can now choose between a top-down view of authority and trust, where you ascribe trust to those who have established themselves in traditional positions of power. Or you can adopt a bottom-up view of authority and trust, where anyone with a Twitter account can be a trusted source of scientific reporting, assuming they develop a good track record, share their methodology, and earn a reputation amongst other experts in their field.
It's a modern-day version of how the printing press drove the reformation of the Catholic Church. Once more people could read the bible, they started to say "Hey the Church seems kinda wrong about some stuff. Maybe we should try interpreting the word of God ourselves." Then the Pope got real mad and we (Europeans anyway) started killing each other over it for 200 years.
History doesn't repeat, but it does rhyme. We trusted the Scientific Method, we trusted Scientists to use the methodology fairly, and we trusted our authorities to accurately disseminate the discoveries of those experts. We couldn't read, so we did the best we could. But now that we can read, we're realizing the Church might have lied about some stuff, and while most Bishops were dutifully trying to interpret the word of God, others were stealing our money and touching our kids.
And so begins the reformation.
One response is to cover your ears, say "I trust the experts," and not look at the data. To pretend you're incapable of reading research papers, that you need someone to do your reading for you and keep deferring to the old authorities.
Another response is to distrust everything, say everyone in old power is an idiot, and nothing can be believed anymore. That not only might they be wrong, but they might be intentionally lying about things to control us. The Fluoride in the water makes you obedient, man. Wake up! The frogs are turning gay.
But I think the better response, and what we all need to do, is a little simpler. We need to learn to read. We need to find preachers we can trust. And we need to recognize the limits of our own knowledge.
Let's start with the limits of our knowledge. We have to recognize that everything lives on the Math to Faith spectrum, and many of the things we want to believe are Math simply aren't.
If you believed in early 2021 that the COVID vaccines were risk-free, that was not a belief in science. That was faith in authorities. There wasn't necessarily anything wrong with the COVID vaccines, but it was impossible to know they were risk-free. It was not, and still is not, an answer science is capable of giving us. Every medical intervention has risks, and we're constantly reevaluating different treatments as we get more data. It would have been more honest to say something along the lines of “We don’t completely know this is safe, but people are dying and based on the data we have right now this is most likely a good tradeoff for most of you. Here are all the trial data if you want to decide for yourself.”
Yet saying anything like this seemed to violate some social contract. Questioning the safety of the medicine and the severity of the disease was not acceptable. You were either team science or team Bad Guys. Why did such a simple question: "hey how much data do we have on the safety of this?" turn into such a religious, emotional conflict? It’s because it wasn’t about science, it was about faith.
Most people were still scared, and knowledge is how we grapple with that fear of death and the unknown. We don't like to admit when we're clinging to something out of faith and fear, so we like to pretend it's a certainty. And we want to trust the people who are giving us a sense of safety, security, and certainty in a scary unknowable world. Many of us desperately wanted to believe this cure was the end of the nightmare, so we did. And we viciously attacked anyone who challenged that belief.
I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with the COVID vaccines. All the data we have so far suggests they had a good reward to risk ratio for many people. But we clearly were not handling that topic scientifically because we were terrified to admit how little we truly knew at the time, which is why we had to bully people into publicly affirming their belief in them.
Instead of demanding certainty or pretending to know things that are unknowable, we should be more okay with recognizing the limits of science and knowledge and saying what we believe. As we've gained more access to information it's become abundantly clear just how few things we have strong foundations to rest our beliefs on. We should be more okay with that, and put more trust in people who are willing to admit where the gaps in knowledge are.
This brings us to finding preachers we can trust. Pre-Internet, there was no good way to rapidly fact check authorities on how accurately they were representing the world to us. Now we can. And when someone is shown to constantly get things wrong or misrepresent the facts, we should no longer trust them, regardless of their status.
Both Trump and Biden fall victim to this, blasting off catchy soundbites that fall apart under 2 minutes of research. And both are rightfully disrespected for it. It doesn't matter if someone is in a seat of power. If they're lying or making things up you shouldn't trust them, regardless of if they're on your team or not.
A position of power should earn you some initial trust, but not durable trust. And when someone demonstrates that they haven't done their research, or that they're willing to lie to advance some other motives, we can't keep trusting them.
One good test for this is how willing they are to share their methodology. If they resort to appeals to authority, “well I’m the expert!” then they’re probably full of shit. Anyone attempting to command respect in an area should be able to explain what set of data and axioms they used to arrive at their conclusions. Or they should admit that it’s just a hunch, guess, or instinct.
It also means we need to distinguish between what kinds of expertise people in different positions of power actually have. Many people will take nutrition advice from their doctors, but a GP has no better access to nutritional information than you do. Doctors also aren't scientists. Your dermatologist isn't running their own scientific research about the effects of different skin moisturizers. They're just Googling it in a lab coat.
And it means anyone should be able to earn trust in a domain simply by showing they do good research with verifiable results. Anyone on Twitter can be a good oracle for scientific information if their synthesis turns out to be robust when you dig into it. Having a certain degree or job does not necessarily mean someone is a better sifter of knowledge. Results do.
You know what they call the worst student in Med School, right?
Then we get to the most challenging part of this new paradigm: learning to read. It's obvious we can't blindly trust people in power to disseminate accurate scientific knowledge to us solely based on their status. Their position gets them to the starting line, but if their words don't line up with what we can learn ourselves, then they can't be trusted.
But how do you even do your own digging to see how the science was conducted? And are there other proxies you can use to evaluate their trustworthiness? There are books that can help: Merchants of Doubt, How to Lie with Statistics, Bad Science. And everyone could probably benefit from a research methods course.
But we also need some sort of infrastructure to support scientific discourse. The biggest red flags in representing information is when an authority says they're the only ones able to interpret the data. That it would be somehow "dangerous" to give the masses the unfiltered information. That information that disagrees with their statements is misinformation. Or worst, when they try to wave away an idea or concern with some ridiculous non-sequitur.
One of the most entertaining examples of this from last year was the dialogue around Ivermectin. There was research coming out suggesting Ivermectin helped with treating or preventing COVID, at least the more deadly outcomes. But the naysayers didn't critique that research, they instead pretended it was idiotic because Ivermectin, a drug with extensive use and effectiveness in humans, is also given to horses. "Hey it seems like Aspirin might help a lot for people with chronic joint pain" "LOL YOU IDIOT HORSES TAKE ASPIRIN"
The best critique I was able to find against Ivermectin was the one written by Slate Star Codex. It was incredibly scientific and gives a very compelling, well-researched, explanation of why Ivermectin probably doesn't work for COVID. That's scientific leadership. And it's something we're sorely lacking in our political and media authorities today.
I don't have a good answer for how to learn to read besides practicing. The more time you spend on Google Scholar reading research papers and reading people critiquing and organizing research papers, the better you'll hopefully get at it. If you’re spending more time reading news about COVID instead of reading research papers on COVID, you’re doing it wrong. Everything you read is a choice between trying to understand the data yourself or trusting someone else to interpret the data for you.
You'll probably end up believing a host of things that turn out to be wrong later, but as long as you can keep weeding those out you'll get a better view of reality over time. You just have to want to learn more than you want to be right. And it’s not like you aren’t believing a bunch of false things by following the news, anyway.
Welcome to the knowledge reformation. Reformers are trying to figure out what it means to be a trusted authority in the age of limitless instantaneous information. The old authorities have no chance of winning. It's impossible to fight the trend towards greater democratization of information and what that will mean for power, trust, and authority.
So do you drink the wine and eat the bread, affirming your commitment to the old ways? Or do you discard those crumbling sources of knowledge, and strike out on your own in pursuit of a greater understanding of the world?
Science is only a process for getting closer to The Truth. It’s not Math, and it’s not Magic. It’s a tool that can be used for better or worse, and we can’t assume all Science is good Science any more than we can assume all furniture is made by Herman Miller.
Learning to read and creating your own relationship with scientific knowledge is not some panacea. It won’t bestow you with a comprehensive knowledge of the world. But it will give you the tools for getting closer to the truth on your own. Tools for creating your own relationship with knowledge, instead of letting others create that relationship for you.
The printing press is here. We just have to learn how to use it.