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Just Believe the Scientists

07 January 2014, 07:50

Just Believe the Scientists

Just trust the scientists. A seemingly paradoxical statement that will have every scientist and most lovers of science in fit should they read it. However, it highlights an uncomfortable truth: that seldom can a person ever be truly informed to make the right decisions.

In medical practise, doctors are required to explain the situation of a patient to the family before providing treatment with their recommendation. The next of kin or medical proxy is expected to make an informed decision as to the correct course of treatment. The question is, though, whether a high school biology class can actually give you enough knowledge of the situation to do so. And the answer is it cannot. Most people forget even the basics and require doctors to come up with metaphors about ‘sending reinforcements to the white blood cells which are like soldiers’ and ‘rewiring the circulation system… kind of like fixing a leak’. While we may feel in control from the basic understanding, we ultimately have to trust the doctor because we know that he understands the subject in far more depth. We trust his estimates of risk and return and bet our lives on it.

How much more so in things which aren’t so life-and-death? With the hot issue of evolution on these forums, where creationists are often told to ‘think for themselves’ to realize evolution is true, I must admit that I, even as an evolutionist, understand why a quiet old lady working as a cashier in some small town somewhere would rather believe God made us, or believe the popular phrase ‘microevolution not macroevolution’. Ultimately one has to ask how much one can actually know short of a formal qualification. And if science demands that you review the evidence for yourself well then, we can’t have people opening up their own research labs just to satisfy their curiosity – they’d rather use that money to settle a mortgage.

And so through the centuries we have come to trust what scientists tell us. Most people review the evidence themselves, but follow the scientist’s line of interpretation. And even with regard to evidence, most people don’t have the education, time or care to go and read about genome sequencing and complementary base-pairing and the biochemical proof of evolution: we settle for the metaphors and ‘common sense’ argument. Same with the Big Bang or Age of the Earth – scientists have been doing valiant research for centuries now, but very few others can actually go ahead and review the evidence and interpret it themselves. We simply trust scientists to be honest and trust them to be thorough and efficient. Most times, it’s not an issue because it really doesn’t affect me personally or on an immediate level how exactly the universe comes about (although for some it is of poetic beauty and religious importance). But we make a grave error in assuming every evolutionist is a scientifically literate, investigative person.

 If this alarms you, please do not think I am some crazy creationist trying to undermine public scientific literacy. To the contrary, I’m a scientist pointing out the obvious: that if we expect the public to agree with us even if they are not qualified enough or has not researched enough to do so; it is akin to indoctrinating them. Lawyers often tell their clients to shut up and let them do the talking (on TV anyway :D) because they understand that unless you’ve studied actual law, you’re going to mess up by assuming a lot of things based on your own bias and sense of fairness. We trust economists and politicians to simplify money for us (look at debates in the US about spending more or going for austerity) so that we can make the ‘common sense’ decisions. Very few people can be thoroughly educated in all fields of life such that they can stand on their own two feet in making a decision one way or the other. Why would science be any different?

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