‘The Scientific Attitude’

Author discusses new book on defending and explaining science.

May 7, 2019

In an era when some politicians regularly distort science, how should those who support science respond? That's the question that Lee McIntyre considers in The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science From Denial, Fraud and Pseudoscience (MIT Press). McIntyre, a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, responded to questions about his new book via email.

Q: Refusing to understand science is hardly new (attacks on Galileo, the Scopes trial). But many have assumed things would get better with education and scientific advances. Why do we have so many people who refuse to accept science?

A: It's a fascinating thing that beliefs are not based just on facts and evidence, but also on identity. One of the characteristic things about our current age is the erosion of trust in experts -- in favor of reliance on people who are in our "tribe" -- and I think science gets caught up in this. In these days when anyone can go to the "University of Google" and find confirmation for whatever they want, they may feel that this is all the education they need.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation on the internet, especially for those who indulge their cognitive biases and go looking for it. One of the things I think we need to do to fight science denial is not just count on education or the success of science to make our case. I wish that scientists would talk not just about their findings, but the rigorous process by which their discoveries were made. If we can manage it, this sort of one-on-one conversation is what builds trust and may have the best hope of changing minds.

Q: Many policy makers maintain that climate change is an open question, and some even profess to doubt evolution. Do you think these politicians are just trying to gain favor with some of their base, or do they really believe these things?

A: It's hard to say. In some cases they may just be "paying the crazy tax," as they call it in D.C. Of course, this is what makes people cynical about politicians. In other cases, though, they seem to believe it. Now it's interesting why. One thing I've found in my research is that there is an evolution from outright ignorance to willful ignorance to science denial. Politicians (or really anyone) may start out saying something they don't believe, because they wish it were true, but then after saying it enough times, they start to believe it. Finally, they can end up in full-blown denial. Peer effects also can be a strong factor in belief formation. I think we see this now with some politicians in Washington. And the sad part is that once someone gets this far, it's very difficult to bring them back.

Q: What do you mean by "the scientific attitude"?

A: I present the scientific attitude by way of contrast to the scientific "method," because I don't think there is actually any recipe for doing science. Philosophers of science in particular have spent decades trying to show that there is some in principle methodological or logical difference between science and nonscience, and they've come up dry. But that creates havoc in trying to defend science, so I came up with the scientific "attitude," which is not a method but a value of science. It's an ethos that is embraced by the entire scientific community. It consists of two theses: (1) that scientists care about evidence and (2) that they are willing to change their beliefs based on new evidence. This is what I think is the truly distinguishing feature of science. For many years philosophers have talked about the "fact/value" distinction. Wouldn't it be ironic if what turns out to be the most distinctive feature of science is one of its values?

Q: Your book talks about failures of science, where people believed one thing and then found that to be false. Why is talking about failure an important part of getting people to think with a scientific attitude?

A: So much of the defense of science is obsessed with talking about its successes, which are of course considerable. But if you really want to understand what is special about science, you also need to look at its failures. By this I don't just mean pseudoscience or fraud (though that is part of it), but also those fields that are genuinely trying to become sciences but may never make it. We also of course have to look at those times when science proposed a theory that simply turned out to be wrong. When someone has embraced the scientific attitude, they have to be prepared for the idea that their favored theory might someday be overthrown. That is just how inductive reasoning works. When this happens it is not a black eye for science but a demonstration of how scientists learn from evidence. False theories are not necessarily unscientific -- sometimes they're just wrong. But they can still teach us a lot about the process of science.

Q: Many scientists struggle when explaining their work to nonscientists. What advice would you offer them?

A: Engage. It is sometimes maddening, but it is important. Don't be satisfied with just being right, but strive to communicate to your audience why you are right. This means not just presenting your findings, but also talking a bit about the rigorous process that led to them. Don't assume they know a thing about confidence intervals. And for goodness' sake, let's puncture the myth that scientific theories have to be proven with certainty in order to be believed! Scientists know this, of course, but I wish they would stop being so embarrassed by uncertainty and embrace it as a strength rather than a weakness of scientific reasoning.

It's very hard for nonscientists sometimes to understand the concept of warrant -- of justification based on the evidence -- but I think a very compelling case could be made if scientists said more about likelihood and probability, and what they mean. Finally, there's an important thing to guard against, which is the impulse for scientists to want to retreat into their own silos when science is attacked or their integrity is questioned. One of the most convincing things scientists can do is to model the value of openness, which is part of the scientific attitude. If they accept their challenge as not just to educate their audience about what they have found, but of how science works, I think they could have much more impact.


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