Can Scientists (and Science) Be Trusted?

Churchill once described democracy as the worst form of government except for all other forms that have been tried. The same, I think, also applies to science as a means of understanding the world. It has severe limitations, but it is by far superior to any other epistemology of old. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that science is foolproof.

As a scientist myself, I have always held science in the highest regard, and, by the same token, I’ve had nothing but contempt for postmodernism. For those unfamiliar with this term, postmodernism is just a fancy way of saying that there is no such thing as truth; instead postmodernists argue that there is an infinite set of variations of truth, and that many natural phenomena are “socially constructed.”

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m now giving postmodernism a second look. Obviously, I disagree with the fundamental premise of postmodernism (indeed, you can easily win a debate with a postmodernist by asking him or her if it’s true that there is no such thing as truth!!!), but the debate over what constitutes “disinformation” and “fake news,” especially as pertains to the novel coronavirus and its treatments, seems to somewhat legitimize the argument that truth isn’t black and white.

Let me say this. Just because a scientist says “this is the truth” doesn’t mean that it is the truth. It may be the truth under a certain set of assumptions and parameters, but what’s true one day can be falsified the next. No scientist, save perhaps the mathematician, can be sure that a finding will hold water indefinitely.

“Just because a scientist says ‘this is the truth’ doesn’t mean that it is the truth. It may be the truth under a certain set of assumptions and parameters, but what’s true one day can be falsified the next.”

Consider the aforementioned severe limitations of science, enumerated as follows. First, the same hypotheses and theories can be confirmed and disconfirmed simultaneously as new data become available. Second, scientists can never perfectly isolate that X “causes” an effect in Y, in large part because the effect on Y can be confounded by an infinite number of alternative (often unmeasured) predictors. Third, science is beholden to the interests of the funder, such that the desired results are at times “manufactured” through the use of questionable research practices and data manipulation. Fourth, certain evidences may fail to enter the arena within which a research question is asked, owing to the problematic or controversial nature of the data. The latter point requires some further reflection.

I can say definitively that in the social sciences, evidence that is politically incorrect or insensitive, or that disrupts the dominant moral narratives within the academic community, often never sees the light of day. If a paper’s findings violate normatively shared values, then editors and reviewers will filter it out so that it becomes a “file drawer” paper that can do no harm to our sensibilities. I can only imagine that the same happens in the natural sciences.

This is why “listen to the science” is not exactly simple, straightforward advice. It is difficult to filter out the noise from the truth, even among scientists. Dissenting voices are stomped out and once trusted voices are shown to be suspect. Cover-ups happen in all facets of society, and science is not immune. The only thing I know for sure is that I don’t know what’s going on right now, and that scares me.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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