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Why Trust Science?

Why Trust Science?

Naomi Oreskes
Princeton University Press
2019
374 pp.
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Starting with a rich overview of the history of scientific thought, in Why Trust Science? Naomi Oreskes forwards a case that trust in science is derived not from the use of a singular “scientific method” but from the particular social processes by which scientific ideas are considered and then adopted or dismissed to form a consensus view. These processes include the act of subjecting scientific work to critiques at conferences and through the peer review of publications, as well as other evaluative processes, including the faculty tenure and review process.

Oreskes provides several case studies that appear to demonstrate instances when scientists got it wrong. Take flossing, for example. Most dentists recommend regular flossing. Yet in 2016, several leading news outlets reported that there was little to no scientific evidence to support this claim, asking if scientists were wrong about this, what else might they be wrong about? Oreskes carefully deconstructs the origin of the story and the evidence, revealing that the meta-analysis of clinical studies on flossing that was cited by the newspapers did not actually refute the purported benefits of flossing. Although this may seem like a trivial example, it demonstrates how a perceived lack of consensus can be perpetuated by organizations that are not interested in generating knowledge but in telling a certain kind of story.

Equally important and timely is the emphasis that Oreskes places on the need for diversity of methods and, importantly, diversity of voices in the social processes of science. She argues, for example, that the “limited energy theory”—a 19th-century belief that was used to justify the exclusion of women from higher learning institutions owing to fears that excess energy expenditure might cause reproductive harm—may not have found such prominence if more female voices had been in authoritative positions in the scientific community at the time. Issues of underrepresentativeness and exclusion, however, persist, and many of the social processes that Oreskes emphasizes, such as academic tenure, are still subject to societal biases [for example, (1)]. But by highlighting the importance of diversity in generating trust in science, Oreskes gives weight to efforts to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Although Oreskes also successfully counters the idea that intentional biases and retractions are not the dire concerns some make them out to be, Fanelli and colleagues have shown that the risk of bias and errors increases for younger scholars and those who are isolated (2). Efforts such as offering childcare at academic conferences (3), mentoring of young scholars, and international cooperation (4) may further reduce these instances by enhancing participation in the scientific community. Additional mechanisms of accountability such as preregistration of studies (5) combined with the recent call to reconsider the use of “statistical significance” to prove or disprove a hypothesis (6) should likewise be viewed as evidence—not of a crisis in science but the strength of its social processes.

Ultimately, Why Trust Science? is an optimistic analysis of the opportunities that exist for enhancing public trust in science. This book should be mandatory reading for anyone who is part of the scientific endeavor.

References and Notes
1. M. Gay-Antaki, D. Liverman, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 115, 2060 (2018).
2. D. Fanelli, R. Costas, J. P. Ioannidis, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 114, 3714 (2017).
3. R. M. Calisi, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 115, 2845 (2018).
4. J. P. Holdren, “How International Cooperation in Research Advances Both Science and Diplomacy” (2017); https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/how-international-cooperation-in-research-advances-both-science-and-diplomacy.
5. B. A. Nosek, C. R. Ebersole, A. C. DeHaven, D. T. Mellor,
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 115, 2600 (2018).
6. V. Amrhein, S. Greenland, B. McShane, Nature 567, 305 (2019).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of International Development, Community, and Environment, Clark University, Worcester, MA 01610, USA