"If science is careful scepticism writ large, shouldn’t a scientific cast of mind require one to be sceptical of science itself?" inquires Economist editor Anthony Gottlieb in an essay for More Intelligent Life. Throughout history, he explains, most scientific theories—including ones today—end up being disproved in favor of new ideas. This is inherent to the method. Scientists are understandably reluctant to acknowledge "how riddled with error and misleading information the everyday business of science actually is" when confronting people with strong, unscientific beliefs. But given that most theories will eventually be disproved, how seriously should we take scientists when they come up with a "ground-breaking" discovery?
It is perhaps the biases of science reporting in the popular press that produce the most misinformation, especially in medicine. The faintest whiff of a breakthrough treatment for a common disease is news, yet the fact that yesterday’s breakthrough didn’t pan out—which ought to be equally interesting to a seeker after truth—rarely is.
Even the vaunted process of "peer-reviewed" academic journals can oftentimes obscure holes in the process:
Most laymen probably assume that the 350-year-old institution of “peer review”, which acts as a gatekeeper to publication in scientific journals, involves some attempt to check the articles that see the light of day. In fact they are rarely checked for accuracy, and, as a study for the Fraser Institute, a Canadian think-tank, reported last year, “the data and computational methods are so seldom disclosed that post-publication verification is equally rare.”
Nevertheless, once we understand these flaws, science remains the best too to discover universal, empirical truth:
The contest is not a zero-sum game: the shortcomings of science do not make it rational to believe cranks instead. It’s a fair bet that many of today’s scientific beliefs are wrong, but only your grandchildren will know which ones, and in the meantime, science is the only game in town.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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