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Trust the method

One of the mantras of those that believe what public health officials have been telling us about COVID-19 is “trust the science” (or sometimes “believe the science”). While I am one of those that trusts the public health officials, I have some reservations about “trust the science.” Not because I am an anti-vaxxer or even doubt the scientific consensus. My problem with the phrase is that is betrays a certain dangerous sloppiness.

The science vs. religion binary runs through so much of the way we talk about these issues. Like so many other people, I think that binary is mistaken. It is, however, pervasive. It has even shaped the way science defenders talk about science - and that gets to the heart of the issue here.

When people say “trust the science,” they are making an appeal to authority that mirrors the science-doubter’s “believe the Bible” or “trust in God.” It is an appeal to eternal verities as a ground for action in the world. The problem is that science is ever-changing; that’s the whole point. If science is a monolithic authority then how is it not just another pope?

Science is meant to deliver real knowledge to us without deference to what was called knowledge even five minutes beforehand. It is a process of knowledge acquisition - a scientific method.

Someone might respond that this is silly arguing over words. I would reply that the past two years are a perfect illustration of how these words matter. You can see a pattern in some of the most common arguments of the COVID skeptics: Fauci changed his mind on masks; lab outbreak theory used to be called disinformation; public health rules change constantly. These arguments only make sense if one believes that science is a monolithic authority, like (much of) religion.

It would be easy to say it’s no surprise that science doubters misunderstand science. But part of the reason they have that misunderstanding is because of science defenders. Whenever science defenders (either through misunderstanding or sloppiness) mirror the appeal to authority style argument, they are setting themselves up for failure because the doubters will always point to the “inconsistency” of science to undermine the authority of the secular pope.

If we want a catchphrase, might I suggest “trust the method?” It has the virtue to putting the focus back on the scientic method as a process of acquiring knowledge instead of the altogether more dubious idea of Science as a singular repository of truth.

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