Naomi Oreskes, who just returned from sabbatical, published Why Trust Science? Although the geologist-turned-history of science professor’s field of study is climate, she’s critical of everything from sunscreen to birth control. Oreskes, who has co-authored or edited 7 books and is about to publish a book on Cold War Oceanography, spoke on Gazette about the five pillars of science being considered trustworthy, the evidentiary value of self-reporting, and her red state oath .
Bulletin: “Why believe in science?” You came out in a Tanner Lecture at Princeton three years ago. Why do you think it needs a wider audience?
Erez: Over the years, I have given more than 100 lectures on climate change. A lot of my work in the past has been on the history of climate science and tells the story of how and why scientists are interested in the question of whether or not greenhouse gases are changing Earth’s climate. Part of the purpose of telling the story this way is to show that our concerns are not some fad or the latest environmental anxiety. This is something scientists have been tracking for a long time. Many of these scientists are not even environmentalists. They’re just scientists interested in how the world works, but they’re aware of the underlying problem. This is increasingly coming against the backdrop of climate change skepticism, with the public at best confused and sometimes denied the issue.
As a speaker and teacher, I always try to take issues seriously, but sometimes people are belligerent and sometimes hostile because of the topic. I can almost tell when a bellicose issue is coming. (I have to say, this is my experience: they’re always men, almost always over 50, and they stand up and use belligerent body language.) So this guy stood up in a very aggressive way and tone of voice and said: “Okay, that’s all good, but why should we trust you or trust science?” I came home that night thinking, “Yeah, that’s a fair question.” There’s an implicit argument that science is is trustworthy, but if one doesn’t think science is trustworthy, then my story fails. Maybe five years ago, I started to form a psychological argument. Then I was asked to give a TED talk. For a serious intellectual topic, it was very successful. People love it, but frankly I don’t think 18 minutes is enough for such an important topic. Also, the people at TED gave me the title “Why Trust Scientists?” I later found out that the title was wrong.It’s not about trust scientists; it is about trusting science as a process, a business or an activity. So when I was asked about the tanners, I knew what I wanted to say.
Bulletin: Can you talk about the way you think about your academic career that has kept you away from TED Talks and Tanner Lectures?
Oresquez: There are many benefits and important things about maintaining an intellectual career rather than being driven by short-term considerations, but there is also a way to make your academic life very introverted, inwardly focused, and engrossed in talking to the “right people”. In a place like Harvard, that usually means if people are invited to speak at Princeton, we’ll say yes. But sometimes when you’re dealing with things like climate change, Princeton isn’t the place you need. South Dakota State needs you. There of people often have interesting things to say because They live in South Dakota and see the world from a different perspective. It makes you a better scholar and a better person when you associate with people who see the world from a different perspective. So I embraced the opportunity to go where others might not, and I have what I call the red state oath, which is that if I am invited to a red state, I will do whatever I can to accept that invitation.
When The Doubtful Merchant came out, we had a great publisher, but when it came time to do book tours, they were only going to send us to big coastal cities where people bought and read a lot of books.From a business model perspective, this is understandable, if your goal is just to sell books and get reviews in The New York Times, That makes sense. But if your goal is to get people the message you think they need to hear, it’s not complete. I was lucky when “Doubtful Merchant” came out and people wanted to help spread the word. I got a call from a reporter in Manhattan, Kansas — out of the blue — and he said, “If I could arrange the logistics locally, would you come to Kansas?” I said, “Yeah, absolutely.” I arranged book tours in Lawrence, Manhattan and Hayes. Hayes is serious wheat country. After Hayes’ speech, I was signing the book, and a woman came up to me and said, “God bless you to come to Hayes.” That moment summed up everything I needed to know about the choices I was making . I won’t win a book award for going to Hayes, Kansas, but I won a different kind of award.
Bulletin: In the book, you lay out the five pillars of how to think about trustworthy science. How did you come to find them?
Oresquez: I am an empiricist, not a theoretician: all my work is based on studying the world as it is and the complexities of its history. I was the same when I was a scientist. The transition from science to history is easy for me because it involves little method/knowledge adjustment. I used to be an empirical geologist, and in geology, the world is really complicated. Theories work in the sense that theories from physics or chemistry or biology limit the possibilities of what could happen on Earth, but you cannot infer geological processes from the laws of physics or chemistry. Therefore, the role of theory in geology is limited. To finally understand the Earth, you have to go out and observe and study it. This is also my attitude towards history. I’m very empirical: I don’t presuppose that I know what its structure is before I study it. Over a period of 100 to 150 years, many very smart people have thought hard about what makes science a science.They’ve been trying to come up with the same thing. Essentially, my thesis is: it’s not the same thing. In cultures originating in Europe, it is difficult to let go of the concept of a thing. Unlike politics or relationships, science is a success story, so we need one that both accepts the reality of how complex it looks when you see it, and explains how it works. I didn’t think there would be five key elements at first, but that’s what I’m trying to achieve: Consensus, Diversity, Method, Evidence, and Values.
Bulletin: You blame a writer for calling self-reporting “uncertain” science. Can you elaborate?
Oresquez: Cancellation of self-reporting is a huge problem in the medical community. This is one of the reasons why women’s complaints are not heeded. But they should be. If a patient goes to the doctor and says, “I’m depressed, I’ve been depressed since I took this drug,” that’s the evidence. it may not be an RCT [randomized clinical trial], but it is still evidence. The authors in question restate the error, saying that previous research was right to view self-reports as “uncertain.” I think this is wrong. It’s personal to me because I’m depressed when I’m on the pill. I’m leading the way in this. I’m lucky my doctor didn’t dismiss my self-report. I stopped the medication and recovered almost immediately. But imagine taking an antidepressant when the cause of your depression is hormonal birth control pills, which can be a scary path. Since I wrote Why Believe in Science? , I read Hilary Mantel’s memoir, “Give Up Ghosts.” She spent 20 years in pain, was told her pain was entirely psychosomatic, was given antidepressants that made her fat and had various other side effects. It turns out she has systemic endometriosis that can spread beyond her reproductive organs. She spent a lot of time enduring physical pain that her doctors didn’t take seriously and was mistreated. It’s scary. It makes one wonder how many people suffer from misdiagnosis because doctors don’t take their self-reports seriously? Because self-reports are not “hard data”. One of the things history has taught us is that people sometimes ignore evidence because it doesn’t fit their ideas of what should constitute good evidence, and these judgments are often incorrect.
Bulletin: In your chapter on science gone wrong, you cite provocative studies on dental floss and sunscreen that have been hyped in the media. So what is the role of the media in shaping scientific credibility?
Oresquez: One thing that happens in the media is the desire to be different, to report the surprising, the unexpected. Article in Outside Magazine Claims Sunscreens Are Bad for Us, A bit of schadenfreude. It also follows the cliché of the renegade scientist, who turns out to be right. Well, sometimes traitors are right, but most of the time they’re just traitors.
The editors of Outside think being outdoors is good for you, and so do I.outdoors is OK For your overall health, that doesn’t mean a sunburn is a good thing, especially if you’re a white guy who lives in a sunny place. If you consider people who live naturally in these climates, usually they are dark skinned or have adaptations to protect themselves.In a way, sunscreen our adapt. And there’s plenty of data showing that using sunscreen is beneficial. But the journal’s statement is based on a very small study, as well as another large study that has yet to be published. That’s very irresponsible journalism.
Schadenfreude definitely has something to do with the flossing story, which claims there is little “hard” evidence to support the conclusion that flossing is good for your health. The reporter who wrote the article was clearly pleased with himself, as if he had debunked a giant dental floss conspiracy.
If you know a bit about science, you can understand why we don’t have any good research on flossing. You can’t do a double-blind clinical trial of floss. You can’t even do a single-blind trial. Most of the time, you can’t even get people to floss. Here’s the point: No one likes flossing. So there is one way to conclude very satisfactorily that flossing is bad. The truth is that dentists are not idiots. They looked at their teeth every day and found that those who flossed had healthier gums than those who didn’t. That’s evidence, so why should we ignore it?
Bulletin: How can science be worthless?
Oresquez: no! All people have values, and we will always have values. We do what we do because we care about things. This is a good thing. It would be really scary if you had scientists without values. That’s the Frankenstein myth, Mary Shelley’s argument, that if you let science get out of hand without considering the moral consequences of your actions, you’ll end up being a monster. What people often forget is that Frankenstein was a doctor, a scientist. The monsters he created are called monsters, but the point of this book is: Science is monsters. We don’t do anything to talk about this in our classes or research. As a serious question in the practice of science, what are the values that drive science, and are they good or bad? I think that’s the conversation we need to have.
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