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Trust The Science!

“Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

A vastly amusing quote from Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, about which I will, erm, make no other comment. I found a number of articles, memes, and blog posts commenting on the apparent contradiction inherent in the statement. Some comments suggest that the statement proves that Obi-Wan Kenobi was Sith (since he spoke in absolutes), while others use it to attempt to “prove” that there are absolutes... and therefore God.

My favourite, though, was a post on StackExchange, where a poster brilliantly re-worded the statement as:

“Individuals or persons not counting themselves among the number of those who refer to themselves as "the Sith", would be hard-pressed to make a statement as utterly categorical, and not admitting, upon mature reflection, of views which, at the end of the day, would have to be said to be more balanced (in an, of course, non-epistemological fashion) and, frankly, more sophisticated.”

From all of this, I think the key point is that we should always try to consider nuance in our thinking. Wording things in absolute terms is appealing, and sometimes poetic, but usually misses the point, and is often a sign of people arguing in bad faith.

“Trust the Science” is a term that I am seeing more and more frequently. The original point is that we should place a relatively high degree of confidence in positions where the scientific consensus is high. That we should gather and evaluate evidence in order to build a framework for understanding our world. That we should attempt to follow the scientific method. That we should “do our research”...

Uh oh.

I have recently started trying avoid the term “research”, because many people apparently think that research consists of entering a few terms into a search engine, then taking the first source that seems to agree with their preconceived notions. This is not research – this is an exercise in confirmation bias.

Using Wikipedia or similar sources to learn a bit about a subject, while useful and fun, is also not research. You also need to dig into your sources and attempt to evaluate them, to assess the level of confidence with which you should consider them.

I don’t consider what I have been doing in this blog to be research in any academically robust way, though I have tried to do some basic evaluation of sources and try to avoid sources which do not appear to be acting in good faith. But then, this is a personal blog, where I comment on issues that I find interesting or worthy of deeper investigation.

The problem is that some people work to twist terms or phrases like these to their own ends. When someone like Dr. Anthony Fauci uses a phrase like “trust the science”, he’s obviously speaking as an expert reporting the consensus of scientific opinion, and is in a position to provide evidence to support his position.

In contrast, I found an article talking about trusting the science (which I will NOT link here) which was a fact- and evidence-free screed which included references to a number of easily-debunked conspiracy theories and outright lies. Interestingly, I took a peek down the rabbit-hole, and the site in question seemed to be loaded with weaponized misinformation and disinformation, but didn’t seem to be referenced in any of the sources which generally watch such sites. Possibly something to look into at some future date.

All of that said, we should be using phrases like this thoughtfully, rather than as buzzwords. An important nuance here is that there is an important distinction to make between public policy and scientific inquiry. “The science” may be able to provide us with factual information regarding the efficacy of a vaccine, or the risk reduction associated with mask use, but will NOT be able to provide definitive answers regarding whether a particular policy is the “right” one, and policy-makers should not be telling people to “trust the science” as a means of suppressing criticism.

Take lockdowns as an example. “The science” can give us information regarding infection rates and how they are likely to differ based on the level of lockdown. Or estimates for the economic impact of lockdowns as compared with the impact of not locking down. But the science can NOT determine the appropriate balance between infection rates, economic factors, individual freedoms, and the practical realities of daily life.

For one thing, there will likely never be enough data available to answer all of the “scientific” questions involved to a high degree of confidence. And, even if enough data were available, there are too many complex and inter-related questions for a definitive answer to be available in most cases. And finally, even if it were possible for some (distant) future artificial intelligence to provide high-confidence answers to all of the scientific questions and recommend an optimal strategy, there would still be questions about whether that strategy is consistent with the values of the government in question.

Dr. Steven Novella has repeatedly made the point, and I agree wholeheartedly, that science informs policy, and cannot (or at least should not) define policy.

So, to paraphrase the Obi-Wan quote above:

“Individuals or persons recommending that a rigorous and science-based evaluation of evidence is desirable and that accepting the consensus of the scientific community is a useful heuristic where that individual is not competent to adequately evaluate the available evidence, would be hard-pressed to make a statement as practical, upon mature reflection, for efficient decision-making in most areas.”



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