On science and belief in science.

As a sometime Twitter user, it always leaves me a little bemused when I see tweets that exhort people to #BelieveinScience. This slogan is becoming more popular not just in social media but in the media in general and other spheres of daily activity. As of the time of writing the Science Foundation of Ireland carry this hashtag on their homepage and use it in their social media activity. While no doubt the Science Foundation do useful and important work, #believeinscience is a somewhat unfortunate hashtag to choose for an organisation that promotes and funds scientific research. Why so?

Well mainly because if you have to believe in it, it’s probably not science! Science is a cumulative process of knowledge building where scientists build theories, propose hypotheses, design experiments to test them, gather and evaluate data and communicate their findings. As such scientific knowledge builds on previous knowledge and is continually being revised. Newtons quote that if he saw further it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants seems an apt description of the scientific approach to knowledge building. At no point does science actually prove anything though. There are simply propositions which we can have more or less confidence in depending on the weight of accumulated evidence. As Ziman puts it “scientific knowledge is not uniformly reliable, but rather like a map representing a country that we cannot visit”.

All this doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything wrong with science, on the contrary sciences strength is that it doesn’t stand still. It’s the most useful means we have of understanding the world around us, but for many (maybe all?) important questions science can’t provide the kind of easy answers that can be distilled into single soundbites. That doesn’t stop people from trying, as this study and others point out, scientific findings are very often dumbed down and reported inaccurately in mainstream media. Very often it’s these same media that urge us to believe in science.

#BelieveinScience is not just at odds with the core principles of science, it could actually be harmful. A belief in science can lead to the propagation of scientific myths. The existence of an experimenter effect in science has been known for many years now, strong prior beliefs held by the experimenter can potentially bias the results of an experiment. In order to do their work well, scientists need to cultivate an open-mindedness that is at odds with the idea of belief.

So if #BelieveinScience is not a particularly good hashtag to promote science, are there ones that might be better?

“Believe in the scientific method as a useful means of understanding the world” – a bit long for a hashtag unfortunately but sums up better what science is about although it doesn’t require much belief.

“Give due weight to the advice of scientists in the particular field they are experts in” – This sounds ok too, provided the scientist is an expert in the field they are advising on and have empirical evidence, then this doesn’t qualify as a fallacious appeal to authority. There are a couple of caveats though, it’s worth remembering that scientists are likely as prone to cognitive bias as any other segment of the population. Scientists can be, and often are, wrong. There may also be other experts in the same field who have a different view, so in as far as possible one should try to weigh up all the evidence and not just ignore scientific research which may run counter to prevailing wisdom on a topic. Finally science is not some kind of egalitarian utopia, rather it mirrors inequalities that exist in society. What gets studied, how and by whom are all important determinants of the state of scientific knowledge at any given point in time.

If looking for a “sciencey” hashtag and the suggestions above are too long, you could try #LearnScience, #UnderstandScience, #CelebrateScience, #DoScience, even #QuestionScience, just don’t #BelieveinScience, there’s no need to.

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