Naomi Oreskes On Why We Should Trust Science

Nov 17, 2019

We don’t tend to acknowledge this, but at the heart of Living Lab Radio lies the belief that science can provide factual information that can help us make better decisions as individuals, as communities, and as societies.

But why should we trust science? How can we be sure that what we hear today won’t be proved wrong in the future?

Naomi Oreskes addresses these questions in her new book Why Trust Science?

When it comes to thinking about climate change, Oreskes told Living Lab Radio she is inspired by the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal. Pascal thought about two scenarios: a person believing in God in a world in which no God actually exists, and, in the second scenario, a person not believing in God, and finding out, after he died, that God does indeed, exist.

“He wagered it was a whole lot less risky to believe in God than not to believe in God,” Oreskes said.

Science doesn’t demand faith without proof, but unless you’re crunching the atmospheric numbers yourself, one does have to rely on the scientific consensus around climate change.  

“And I argue that in our current world, with the threat of climate change bearing down upon us, the risk of ignoring what scientists are telling us is very, very grave indeed,” said Oreskes, who is a professor of the history of science at Harvard University.

There's good news and there's bad news in this area, Oreskes said.

“The good news is that, despite a lot of panic and alarm being raised, all of the available evidence tells us that the vast majority of American people still do trust science,” she said.

The bad news is that there are a few key areas in which people tend to reject science. Those are areas in which they fear that the implications of the scientific findings clash with their values, their deeply held preferences, their worldview, their economic interests or their religious beliefs, Oreskes said.

These are in the areas of tobacco, climate change, and several environmental public health issues. In their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes and her colleague Erik Conway documented the way in which interested industries have deliberately tried to stoke distrust in science in order to protect dangerous products and dangerous economic activities.

People can protect themselves from bad information by finding out whether the person who is being quoted is a scientist, or just someone with an opinion on the matter. There’s another question to ask, Oreskes said.

“Are they an expert on this issue? If you see someone talking about something for which they do not have appropriate expertise, that should be a red flag. And you can rule out a lot of nonsense and disinformation in just a few minutes by taking that one step.”