Defending Science Through Its Values

The myth that science should rely on proof or certainty is a view so
harmful to scientific understanding that it only gives aid and comfort to
climate-change deniers and others who attack it, argues Lee McIntyre.
By Lee McIntyre <>
August 8, 2019


It should come as no surprise these days that science is under attack.
Climate-change deniers, anti-vaxxers and a host of others feel free to
doubt or dismiss hard-won scientific knowledge based on a standard of
belief that is ignorant if not outright irrational. To claim that climate
change "isn't settled science" or that the safety of vaccines "must be
proven" reveals a level of misunderstanding about how science works that is
so basic it must be addressed before we have any hope of getting someone to
accept the findings of science.

So how to fight against this?

One way *not* to defend science is to pretend it is perfect. The myth that
science should rely on proof or certainty -- or that there is some sort of
"scientific method" that even flawed human beings can follow to produce
guaranteed results -- is a view so harmful to scientific understanding that
it only gives aid and comfort to its enemies. Science deniers love to
exploit uncertainty and use it as a cudgel. Instead, I recommend that we
embrace what is most distinctive about science, which is not its method or
logic but instead one of its values: the "scientific attitude."

The scientific attitude is the idea that scientists care about evidence and
are willing to change their views based on new evidence. It is a community
standard of transparency, skepticism and willingness to test one another's
work that has proven itself through time as the best means of understanding
the empirical world. Scientists understand this and recognize that although
they may aim at the goal of "truth," this can never be reached in practice.
Instead science is founded on the idea of "warrant," which is the
justification of belief based on fit with the evidence. Still, no matter
how strong one's evidence, it is always theoretically possible for some
future fact to come along and overthrow a theory. That is just how
inductive reasoning works.

In a recent book, *The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science From Denial,
Fraud and Pseudoscience*, I talk about how we can use a values-based
conception of science to defend it from the threat of science deniers and
pseudoscientists, who attack it using a mishmash of conspiracy theories,
cherry-picked evidence and other reasoning flaws that are born of ideology
and wishful thinking. In a world in which the White House spent two full
years without a science adviser, and the U.S. Congress has many members who
still refuse to embrace the scientific consensus on climate change, this is
no trivial thing.

It seems important for scientists (and others who care about it) to tell
the story of science, while not trying to hide its flaws. We need not only
to share the *results* of science but also explain the rigors of the
process by which this knowledge is arrived at.

You don't convince someone who doesn't care about evidence by showing them
more evidence. You persuade them by engaging in conversation to show where
their reasoning is flawed. One way to do this is to model the scientific
attitude in practice by telling the truth to science deniers: they are
right that no scientific theory can ever be "proven." But then we must
immediately explain that this is an absurd standard for belief that is not
even practiced by science deniers themselves (who often gravitate toward
conspiracy theories for which they have no evidence whatsoever). Evidence
is crucial, even if it can never amount to proof.

Yet lack of certainty does not mean that likelihood and probability go out
the window. Some beliefs really are better justified than others. And some,
which have no supporting evidence at all -- or have been ruled out by
experiment -- can just be dismissed.

Rather than being embarrassed by their inability to offer proof or
certainty, I wish that scientists would challenge the ridiculous (double)
standard of evidence that science deniers often employ, whereby no evidence
is good enough to convince them of something they *don't* want to believe,
yet no evidence is required to get them to accept something they *do* want
to believe. Indeed, if scientists would embrace a values-oriented way of
defending what is special about science, they could say what they know in
their hearts to be true: that far from a weakness, uncertainty is one of
the greatest strengths of scientific reasoning.

Along the way, they could also take care to dispel the myth that science
has to be perfect before any of its findings can be believed, by discussing
some of the problems with science but then explaining the extraordinary
efforts that science has taken to correct them.

For example, there are some common practices in academic research that many
scientists push to the limit -- like "p-hacking" or being selective in
reporting their data -- that are certainly to be discouraged as
antithetical to the scientific attitude but that may be inadvertently
encouraged by some of the pressures and expectations of academic
institutions themselves. And yet the good news is that scientists are
policing themselves when it comes to such practices. Now that the problems
with p-hacking are beginning to get more publicity, some journals have
stopped asking for it. Other critics have proposed various statistical
tests to detect p-hacking and shine a light on it. The next step might be
to change the reporting requirements in journals, so that authors are
required to compute their own p-curves, which would enable other scientists
to tell at a glance whether the results had been p-hacked. Others have
called for the mandatory disclosure of all degrees of freedom taken in
producing the results in a paper, along with size of the effect and any
information about prior probabilities.

Moreover, if a publication gets through this gauntlet but still turns out
to be irreproducible or just has some mistakes, it can always be retracted.
Scientific journals have long had a mechanism for the retraction or
correction of their publications. Based on concern that insufficient
attention was being paid to such notices (which might lead other scientists
inadvertently to build upon irreproducible work), in 2010 researchers Ivan
Oransky and Adam Marcus founded a website called where
one can find an up-to-date list of scientific papers that have been
retracted. Publicizing retractions might also provide an additional
incentive for researchers not to end up on such a public “wall of shame”
(though it is important to note that retracted work is not necessarily
indicative of fraud or other malfeasance). On their blog, Oransky and
Marcus argue
that *Retraction Watch* contributes in part to the “self-correcting” nature
of science.

In other words, if left to themselves, scientists have always done a good
job of creating an environment in which evidence matters -- and of
punishing those who cheat on this principle by all but excommunicating them
from the profession. While science may not necessarily be self-correcting,
it likely comes as close as possible to the fact-based, rigorous testing of
our beliefs against reality that could be invented by the human mind. In a
world of cognitive bias, spin, ideology and just plain bullshit, science is
one of the few instances where we catch humanity at its best.

What is most special about science is not that it is perfect -- or that it
is practiced by perfect individuals -- but that it is based on a set of
values that seeks to keep us honest even in the face of wishful thinking,
self-interest and a perverse set of motives that are sometimes exacerbated
by the environment in which scientific research is practiced. Even if we
delude ourselves or outright cheat, the community of scientists can correct
us, guided by an expectation of openness to new ideas, coupled with
rigorous skepticism and testing, that will in the long run ferret out even
the most stubborn mistakes and misconceptions.

Science is extraordinary enough that we can defend it despite the
challenges of its practice, based on the communitywide acceptance of its
creed. No idea should be excluded merely based on where it came from, but
neither can it be accepted until there is sufficient evidence in its favor
and a rigorous attempt has been made to show that it is the best
explanation for the phenomena in question. If it is, then it can be
accepted as warranted … until some future evidence may come along to
overthrow it, leading to an even better-warranted hypothesis.

Despite its drawbacks, this is the best way we can attempt to know a world
in which there will always be some uncertainty.

This is the scientific attitude.

*Lee McIntyre is a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History
of Science at Boston University. He is the author of *The Scientific
Attitude: Defending Science From Denial, Fraud and Pseudoscience *and *
Post-Truth*, both published by MIT Press.*