Understanding The Trust (And Distrust) In Science

24:47 minutes

water reaching up high to the edge of a building. right at the edge of the building where the water meets the building are the words in red graffiti "i don't believe in global warming." the words appear to be slipping beneath the water line
A spray painting by street artist Banksy on a wall by Regent’s canal in Camden, London. It was done in response to the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. Credit: Dunk/flickr/CC BY 2.0

Despite widely reported attacks on science, the vast majority of Americans continue to trust scientists, according to the latest survey from the Pew Research Center. Many listeners of Science Friday might take it as a given that we should trust science, but is that trust well-founded? Naomi Oreskes, history of science professor at Harvard University, argues that we should. In her new book, Why Trust Science?, she explains how science works and what makes it trustworthy. (Hint: it’s not the scientific method.) 

Read an excerpt of Oreske’s new book Why Trust Science?

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Segment Guests

Naomi Oreskes

Naomi Oreskes is the author of Why Trust Science? (Princeton University Press, 2019) and co-author of the book Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury Press, 2010). She’s also a professor in the department of the history of science and an affiliated professor in earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Despite recent attacks on science, most Americans do trust scientists. And this trust is growing actually. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 86% said they had a fair amount or a great deal of confidence that scientists act in the best interest of the public. That’s more trust than in politicians, the military, and we, the media, like this caller told us on our VoxPop app.

SPEAKER 1: When it comes to scientists, they have my 100% trust. I feel like their careers and the ethics of their careers keep them away from any bias or any kind of leniency they might have towards a political party.

IRA FLATOW: Hm. But when it comes to politicized issues, that trust can break down. A Gallup survey found over a third of Americans believe humans were created in the last 10,000 years. Climate change is another issue where not everyone trusts the scientists.

SPEAKER 2: I don’t trust scientists or talk show hosts that promote anthropological climate change. If the anthropological contribution of CO2 is 10 parts per million, which was recently the case, that makes our contribution to the atmospheric structure 1/100,000th of the atmosphere. That’s not going to do anything. So I don’t trust any of you clowns. You people can’t do simple math.

IRA FLATOW: So do we really trust scientists? How many of us do? How many of us don’t? And more importantly, should we? My next guest Naomi Oreskes is a professor of history of science at Harvard University and the author of the new book Why Trust Science? Welcome to Science Friday.

NAOMI ORESKES: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

IRA FLATOW: Were you familiar with those kinds of quotes?

NAOMI ORESKES: Of course. Yes, absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: And you’ve heard them often, I’m sure.


IRA FLATOW: So let’s talk about what led you to write this book.

NAOMI ORESKES: Well, I wrote this book really as a kind of sequel to my previous book, Merchants of Doubt. When Erik Conway and I were writing that book, which examined the organized attempts to undermine and discredit science related to a set of environmental issues culminating in climate change, we wanted to understand why intelligent, educated people would reject hard-won scientific findings. And what we found in that story was that these people were deeply motivated by political ideology, particularly the ideology of, let’s say, fair economics– what we called free market fundamentalism.

But in writing that book, we pretty much took it for granted– it was pretty much an assumption– that the science behind these environmental issues was trustworthy, that if it had been published in peer-reviewed journals, if it was the result of decades of work by credible people, that we didn’t see any particular reason to question it. But after the book came out and I started doing a lot of public lectures, I started to realize that not everyone shared that presupposition, just as one of the people you just had on the air a minute ago. And moreover, I gave a public talk one time in which a member of the audience got up after I was finished speaking.

And I had outlined in great detail the history of climate science and how the scientists had come to these conclusions, what sort of data they had. And he said, well, that’s all very well and good, but why should we trust the science? And I thought, you know, it’s a fair question. And so I took the question on board. And this new book is the result.

IRA FLATOW: So let’s talk about some of the reasons that people do distrust scientists. Our program, we’ve been on the air almost 30 years now, and we’ve asked this question many times. And it could be politics or religion. And I remember having one listener come on and say, you know, I just don’t trust anything my government tells me. And that’s where the science comes from.

NAOMI ORESKES: Right. Well, of course, not all science comes from the government. That’s a popular misconception.

But the important thing that we learned when we were writing Merchants of Doubt is that a great deal of distrust of science is what sociologists call implicatory denial. That is to say, we deny things when we don’t like their implications. So as the examples you just gave show and the numbers you quoted from the polling, we find that, when asked about science generally, most Americans do trust science, and, as you pointed out, trust it actually much more than government or, dare I say, journalists.

But when you get into specific scientific findings that people think or feel contradicts deeply held values, whether they’re religious values, political values, ideological commitments, that’s when we begin to see trouble. And that’s why we have these certain areas, like climate change– evolutionary biology, in some cases, vaccinations safety– where we see significant rejection of scientific findings. But of course, that’s not just an individual thing. It’s also happening because there are organized activities designed to make people question science.

And that, of course, was what we had documented in Merchants of Doubt. So that’s what I’m trying to address in this new book, to say, well, hold on a minute, let’s talk about what science is and also what it isn’t, and why there is a basis for trusting it, even if you might not always like the implications.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’re talking with Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard, and the author of a new book Why Trust Science? Oh, yeah, and then of course, we’re talking about it on on Science Friday from WNYC Studios. All right. Something that you make plain in your book is the popular notion about what science is and how it’s done and what you say it is.

NAOMI ORESKES: Well, part of the thing that I wanted to explain this book is, what is science really? Because I think, if we demystify it, it also makes it less intimidating or something that would be less likely to generate hostility or resentment. And so in the book, I look at this question of, what is it that scientists actually do?

And many of us have the view that scientists follow the scientific method. If we took high school science, that’s probably what we were taught. But if you actually look at the history of science, if you look at the philosophy of science, what you find is that there really is no single scientific method, that scientists do a variety of different things, that it varies over time. It also varies across different disciplines. And so what I argue in the book is that what makes science reliable is not the use of a specific particular method, but the set of methods using for vetting claims, for filtering claims, and for judging whether or not those claims are adequately supported by evidence.

IRA FLATOW: If you’d like to phone us, our number is (844) 724-8255, (844) SCI-TALK. Or you can tweet us @SciFri. We’re talking with Naomi Oreskes, author of the new book Why Trust Science?

And you’re explaining that the way we teach science in school is just not the way scientists really do it. I remember a quote from Richard Feynman talking about when people ask him what science was. He said it’s very simple. You come up with an idea and then you go out and find the data to back you up.

NAOMI ORESKES: Well, and that might be what Richard Feynman did. And that’s fine. Because that is one way you can do science. And for some people, and for some scientists, that works really well.

But it’s not how all science works. So what he’s describing is what’s sometimes referred to as the hypothetical deductive model. This is what many people think the scientific method is.

You have an idea, a hypothesis, a theory. You deduce consequences. And then you go out into the world to see if those consequences are correct.

But there’s two problems with that model of science. One is that it’s not what many scientists do. Many scientists follow inductive methods, where they collect data first, and then try to figure out what the data are telling them. And they don’t necessarily have a hypothesis to begin with.

We also find that a lot of scientists are involved in modeling, in which the relationship between theory and data is much more interactive or iterative. So maybe you start with a data set, you build a model out of that model, you develop theoretical ideas, then you use the model to test those ideas. And it’s much more of a chicken-and-egg sort of process where neither the data nor the theory are exactly controlling.

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to come back and talk lots more with the Naomi Oreskes. Our number, (844) 724-8255, talking about the science. What do you want to know about how scientists do what they do? We’ll come back and talk about it after the break. Stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about trust in science.

My guest is Naomi Oreskes professor of history of science at Harvard University and the author of the new book Why Trust Science? Let me just ask you your own question. Why do we trust science, Naomi?

NAOMI ORESKES: My answer isn’t “why do.” It’s why we should.

IRA FLATOW: Why we should.

NAOMI ORESKES: Yeah. So the answer is, it’s about the way in which scientists vet claims. So you gave the example of Feynman, who said, I have an idea and then I go out and I find evidence for it.

Well, that may have worked very well for Richard Feynman. But that’s actually kind of a dogmatic way to think about it, that I only look for evidence that supports my idea. And the reality is that what Feynman described is really, in a way, only the first step.

Once you have the evidence that you think supports your theory, you have to submit it to criticism. And the criticism that scientists go through is very, very tough. It’s sometimes pretty nasty, in fact.

So you have to go to workshops. You have to show your data. You have to let other scientists ask questions.

And then, if there are holes in your theory, or you don’t have enough data, you have to collect more data, or you have to adjust the theory. Eventually, if you feel like it’s good enough, then you submit it to peer review. And then you go through another round of what’s essentially a kind of interrogation. And so my argument is that this is really the reason why scientific claims are reliable, not because one particular person has an idea, but because a whole community of scientists is involved in vetting those ideas, in filtering them, and rejecting the ideas that are not sufficiently supported by evidence.

IRA FLATOW: So then it’s really what the majority of scientists think about something. If there is some sort of controversy, it’s what most scientists have agreed on.

NAOMI ORESKES: Correct. That’s exactly right. And that’s why the notion of consensus is so important in science, even though some people don’t like that idea.

But that is exactly what it is, that scientists eventually may come to a consensus. They don’t always have a consensus. We might not have a consensus on the issue of Alzheimer’s that you just mentioned in the break.

But if scientists eventually agree, if they say, yes, we do have enough data to say that this appears to be correct, then scientists agree. They have a consensus. That’s what we call scientific knowledge. And in most cases in science, if the scientific community is healthy, people move on. People don’t keep fighting about things that they consider to be settled.

IRA FLATOW: But that’s one of the reasons why sometimes new ideas have A trouble breaking through.

NAOMI ORESKES: Well, that’s right. And so I want to argue, saying that maybe it’s a little bit counterintuitive. I would say that’s a good thing, that if I have a new idea, I ought to have a lot of data to back it up.

Scientists work really hard to figure out the answers to complicated questions. And we don’t want to be throwing that work out just because of some fad or some idea that some person has. Maybe someone gets on a hobbyhorse.

We want to subject the new claim to the same tough scrutiny that the older claims have been subjected to. So it takes real work. And often, when a new idea comes around, it takes a while before that work can be done.

But I want to say that’s a good thing. That’s why we should trust science. Because scientists don’t just run with the latest fad. They don’t just run with the latest fashion. They worked really, really hard to figure out whether a claim is reliable.

IRA FLATOW: Does that mean that this is what’s happening when scientists say that science is self-correcting?

NAOMI ORESKES: Yes, exactly. Although the phrase “science is self-correcting” always sort of troubled me. Because it makes it seem as if science is sort of a person who can correct their own errors.

So science is just the glomeration, the collaboration, of all the different scientists who are working at any given time. So it’s not that science is some abstract thing that’s self-correcting, but that people correct each other, that people look for mistakes and errors or inadequacies, and they point them out, and they say, you know what? That doesn’t hold up.

And if I’m on the receiving end of that criticism, then I have to get back to work. And so it’s the process that leads to correction. So science as a whole, as a collaborative activity, is self-correcting.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones, to San Francisco. [INAUDIBLE], hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

SPEAKER 3: Thank you. I believe very much in science, but I don’t believe in it it’s sponsored by corporations and colleges that are paid to get certain results. And that has been our problem, obviously, with Exxon and all of these situations. And I’m surprised that you haven’t brought it up yet, but it seems to be the elephant in the room. So I’d appreciate it if you’d address that.

IRA FLATOW: OK, we’ll give it a shot.

NAOMI ORESKES: Of course. That’s a great question. And actually, I’ve written a lot about conflict of interest. I’ve written about ExxonMobil and their attempts to discredit legitimate climate science.

And Merchants of Doubt is all about corporate and ideological rejection of science. Because I had focused on that so much in my earlier work, in this book, I was actually trying to step back from that and think about the question in a more abstract and more philosophical way. But you’re absolutely right.

To really understand our current situation, we need both end. And we are right to be skeptical of science if it’s being funded by people who have a conflict of interest. And this is why, in my other work, I’m a very passionate advocate for full disclosure of funding in 100% of all cases.

I think it’s never excusable for scientists not to be completely forthright about who is funding their work. And we saw that this week with the recent study that claimed to have demonstrated that maybe it’s OK to eat tons of red meat. It turns out those scientists were affiliated with the food industry, but they didn’t disclose that in their work.

IRA FLATOW: In case you just joined us, we’re talking with Naomi Oreskes, who is author of this new book, Why Trust Science? I have found from doing our program all these years that, if people have an idea about science, it’s very hard to change their minds, even if you present them with the evidence for or against something.

NAOMI ORESKES: Well, this is a broader question than just science. As we know, it is hard to change people’s minds about stuff, especially as we get older. It’s relatively easy to get children to consider new things. It’s pretty easy to get young people to consider new things. It’s pretty hard to get old folks to do it.

But at the same time, it’s not impossible. If I thought it was impossible, I wouldn’t be a professor and I wouldn’t write books. So I think that if we explain things clearly, if we make an effort not to be judgmental, not to be arrogant, and not to use too much jargon, we can, in fact, explain things and affect how people think. And that’s what I’ve tried to do in this book.

So the book, I hope, is relatively jargon-free. It’s written in a way that I hope would be legible to anyone who has a college degree, and not necessary in science– just anyone who has a college degree in any field, in any area.

IRA FLATOW: Let me get a tweet in from Susan, who says, in response to “do you trust science?,” “I do, but I feel compelled to say that the past 100 years are full of false science that was peddled as incontrovertible.” And she says, “For example, phrenology. Also, miracle drugs that end up being killers. People have reasons beyond politics and lack of education to distrust science.”

NAOMI ORESKES: Yeah, that’s a great question. And the whole second chapter of my book is dedicated to that. So in the second chapter, I take on specific examples of science where we would say what we just heard, that the scientists got it wrong.

And one of the things that’s interesting is that if you actually look at these cases, what you almost always find is that there was no consensus. So for example, I don’t actually write about phrenology in the book, but other people have written about it. And there was no consensus on phrenology. There was no consensus on eugenics. There was no consensus on some of the other things I write about in the book, like the limited energy theory.

So this is why I think the category of consensus is so important. If we want to know whether or not a science is reliable, one of the first steps we can take is simply to ask the question, is there a consensus here? And if it turns out there isn’t, then I argue we should be skeptical, or at least reserve judgment.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let’s go to the phones again with Charles in Petoskey. I can’t get the name of the state. So go ahead, Charles.

CHARLES: Hi, how are you doing?

IRA FLATOW: Hi, how are you?

CHARLES: I’m good. My comment was that because of lack of education or improper education, there’s numerous things. My pet peeve is home schooling.

But that’s a digression from the topic. A lot of the reason people don’t believe in science is because they don’t understand the scientific process. That’s unfortunate.

IRA FLATOW: Yes, go ahead. You talk about that a lot, Naomi.

NAOMI ORESKES: I do. And that’s a great comment. Because I want to 100% agree with it– the second part of it, the conclusion. So I think that’s right.

I think that all of us tend to be skeptical of things we don’t understand. And the reality is that science is often presented to us as a kind of black box, a fait accompli. And I think that if you open up the black box and you show people how this works and you show them that these are regular people doing this work, and, yes, of course, they sometimes make mistakes, and, yes, of course, sometimes they’re arrogant, and sometimes they become full of themselves or get ahead of themselves– those are all true.

But the crux of my argument is that science has a mechanism for filtering that out. And that’s the basis I believe for it being trustworthy. And so I’m hoping that if a person reads the book and they see laid out in what I hope are fairly clear terms how science works and how science has this mechanism for identifying error and correcting it, that that may lead people to say, OK, that makes sense. And I get it, that sometimes scientists make mistakes. But it doesn’t mean that the whole enterprise is invalidated.

IRA FLATOW: Again, how do you deal with people who have trouble with changing ideas in science, especially about nutrition? We’re always getting, oh, the latest study says fat’s bad. It’s good. It’s carbs or whatever.

NAOMI ORESKES: Well, nutrition was one of the other reasons I wrote this book. Because sometimes, when people would say to me, well, why should I trust science, the next thing they would say is, scientists are always changing their minds. And as a historian of science, I didn’t actually observe that to be the case.

So I would ask people, well, what are you thinking about? And they would very often say nutrition. So I think there’s a couple of things we need to know about nutrition.

One is that nutrition is an extremely difficult science. It’s very hard to study nutrition well, because people lie about what they eat. And you can’t do double blind clinical trials. So it’s very hard to get good data.

And so this is why we have to rely on epidemiology, population studies, animal trials. But increasingly, we actually are developing a very robust knowledge about nutrition. And it’s actually not that complicated. I think the writer Michael Pollan got it right when he said in his recent book, eat food, mostly plants.

But one reason people get confused– and I don’t want to bite the hand that’s feeding me right now, but frankly, it has to do with the way journalists report news. And this week, the recent discussions about meat is a case in point. We have a very large body of data that tells us that, for the vast majority of people, it is almost certainly healthier to eat a diet that is mostly plant-based. It doesn’t mean you have to be a vegan. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the occasional cheeseburger. But overall, you will almost certainly be healthier if you mostly eat plants.

But you could find a study that argues otherwise. And that’s what happened this week. There was a study that argued otherwise.

And it got huge press. It was covered by all the major newspapers, all the major television and radio programs. I did an interview just a few days ago with CNN on exactly this point. So the media have really done the public a disservice, I think, by buying into this idea that we don’t know what’s going on, when, in fact, we really do know what’s going on.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. We’re talking with Naomi Oreskes, professor of history of science at Harvard. And her book is Why Trust Science?

And we already talked about how the public really does trust scientists generally overall. Do you think that sort of waxes and wanes with generations, or it’s pretty constant?

NAOMI ORESKES: Well, what the data show is that, in the last 40 or 50 years, there’s been a general decline in trust in institutional authority in America, going back to the 1960s. But trust in science has declined less than trust in some other areas. So I think that’s an interesting phenomenon. And I think it tells us that, actually, despite the attempts to discredit science by a lot of groups, a lot of individuals and organizations, that, actually, science holds up pretty well. And I think my book helps to explain why that is.

IRA FLATOW: Have you ever seen a time like now, when the government is trying to sow distrust about science?

NAOMI ORESKES: Well, yes, that’s a good point. So we’ve seen government attempting to sow distrust in climate science for a long time, really going back to the administration of George W. Bush. So what’s happening now is not entirely new, I’m sorry to say.

But it is definitely worse, the sort of extreme egregious rejection of facts by the president of the United States and many people around him, also many of the people in Congress. This is extremely troubling and extremely dangerous. Because when we deny scientific facts and scientific evidence, people get hurt. People can die.

And I’ve been working on this book for a number of years. And that’s partly why I was motivated to try to get it out now. Because I do think this issue is particularly acute at the present moment.

IRA FLATOW: I want to get a quick Twitter comment. Mike asks, “You mentioned the first step of checking consensus. How do we find out if there is a consensus or not?”

NAOMI ORESKES: Well, that’s a great question. And I think that scientists need to do more work. So this is partly my message to the scientific community.

Scientists need to do more work to better explain to the American people areas where there is consensus and areas where there isn’t. And I think that in some areas of science, people have tried to do this. So certainly in the area of medicine, the National Institutes of Health has a set of consensus conferences on medical issues.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change exists specifically to articulate the scientific consensus on matters related to climate change. And the US National Research Council issues consensus reports. But I think that these groups don’t do enough to get that information out to ordinary people, and, in particular, to explain it in plain language.

So the National Research Council consensus reports are really, really fine pieces of work. But they’re hardly ever written in ways that ordinary people could understand. So I really would like to see the scientific community step up to the plate and do more work in that regard.

IRA FLATOW: It sounds to me you’re saying scientists themselves need to be better communicators, as well as the organizations they work for.

NAOMI ORESKES: Well, yes. But usually, consensus reports are written by organizations. They’re not written by individuals. They’re put out by groups like the National Research Council. So I would say that I don’t view it as the responsibility of individual scientists to do this work. But I do think a group like the National Research Council, which has the resources to do this and the authority, could take on that role.

IRA FLATOW: I’m certainly in agreement with you about organizations speaking more like normal people do. I want to thank you very much, Naomi, for taking time to join us this hour.

NAOMI ORESKES: Thank you. It’s been great speaking with you.

IRA FLATOW: Naomi Oreskes is professor of history of science at Harvard University. And her book is Why Trust Science? It comes out October 22. You can read an excerpt from that book on our website at ScienceFriday.com/Trust.

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