The Journal Gazette
Friday, July 24, 2020 1:00 am

Consolation of science is rooted in reliability

Abe Schwab

I really want to know what's going to happen this fall.

I want to know whether there's going to be an outbreak at either my son's high school or my daughter's middle school. I want to know if I'm going to be able to teach uninterrupted for the entire fall semester. I'm not alone in my desire for knowledge, and so the question is: Can we predict what's going to happen with COVID-19 in Allen County?

As I teach my students, knowledge is a funny thing. We claim to know lots of things, but it's one thing to claim to know something and another to actually know it. It's one thing to believe something, and another to have good reasons to believe it.

To get at this distinction, I usually use examples such as, “Has anyone here been to the country of Nigeria?” Usually nobody has. Then I ask: “Does the country of Nigeria exist?” They all say yes. And then I ask them how they know the country of Nigeria exists. It always turns out they're relying on the testimony of others.

Then I ask them whether they've ever been lied to – if someone has ever given them false testimony. And, of course, they say yes.

Like our knowledge that Nigeria exists, most of our knowledge of the world comes from the testimony of others.

For example, I think I know there's going to be an increase in COVID-19 cases in the next couple of months. And I think I know this because of the testimony of others who have more experience with diseases such as COVID-19.

Because so much of our knowledge relies on the testimony of others, the quality of that testimony is important.

The testimony of science, built on rigorous structures of inquiry, leads to testimony more reliable than any other method.

Don't get me wrong. Science is fallible. It has led to false beliefs and mistaken conclusions.

But scientific inquiry itself leads to the rejection of previous conclusions drawn from scientific inquiry.

The dual requirements of reproducibility and reliable predictions provide the mechanism by which science corrects its own conclusions.

The testimony of science is not perfect, but it is generally reliable and self-correcting.

So when we're asked to believe something that goes against the testimony of science, it's worth looking at the source of that testimony.

If the source is known to be a liar, if the source is known to exaggerate, if the source is known to make claims based upon nothing but thin air, or even less, then any of that testimony must be viewed with skepticism, if not outright rejected.

Every once in a while, such a source may be right, but only in the way a stopped clock is right twice a day.

When we decide what to believe, we have to evaluate the source of the testimony on which we rely.

Science isn't perfect, but it provides generally reliable testimony and corrects itself and admits when it is wrong.

The general populace, on the other hand, produces testimony that is as likely the result of strong desires or desirable fantasies.

Despite the fact that I want to know what's going to happen this fall, I don't know for sure.

But, when given a choice, I'll choose the testimony of people who follow rigorous standards and structured investigations over the testimony of bona fide liars or the people who enable them.

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