NPR logo Should We Trust Science?


Should We Trust Science?

Cultivating cells.

Cheating in science has been in the news lately. The Office of Research Integrity — which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — punishes on the order of a dozen scientists a year for different sorts of misconduct, such as plagiarism and making up results, according to the founders of one watchdog group.

According to the same op-ed piece, everyday, on average, a scientific paper gets retracted because of misconduct.

For many, this is a cause for alarm and even pessimism.

There have been numerous high-profile cases in recent years that have had lasting damage, not only on the public's trust in science, but also on the lives and careers of people working in science.

Yoshiko Sasai, for example, took his own life after his highly publicized paper on stem cells turned out to be flawed. And, although former Harvard psychology professor Marc Hauser was found to have been solely responsible for misconduct in his lab, it is hard to believe that his students don't continue to pay the price for the errors as they seek to establish their own careers in science.

But I think it would be a mistake to conclude from any of these scandals that science is in bad shape — or, in particular, that the institution of science isn't what it used to be.

The question really isn't whether we should trust science — and not because science is so very trustworthy. The thing that we lose sight of is that science isn't like the Catholic Church or the U.S. Armed Forces. It doesn't have a hierarchy and it isn't governed by any single organizing body.

Science is not now — and never was — one thing.

Nor is there a single scientific method. Yes, scientists test their hypotheses and, so, they seek to frame questions that are testable. Scientists try to get it right.

But science is diverse like art is diverse. Dancers and sculptors both work in studios. But what different kinds of studios! And the same goes for laboratories. Labs are places of invention and true experiment; they require that people roll up their sleeves and handle stuff. But the way they do that depends on just what it is they are looking at — at just what it is that needs handling. Stars? Emotions? Jellyfish? Viruses? Fossils? Unemployment? Science isn't one size fits all.

All science, like all art, takes place not despite culture, but in culture. How else do we even know what questions are worth asking?

There has always been bad science, even junk science. And scientists have always had careers to burnish and families to feed. And they have always carried out their science as members of communities and subcultures that do not so much bias them as make them what they are — that is to say, human beings.

So, should we trust science? Well, that's like asking if we should trust what we see with our own eyes. And the only right answer is: Of course! Not because it's infallible — but because there is no alternative to relying on our best judgment as to what it is we see.

However, this is not to deny that due diligence and skepticism are also required.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe