‘Trust science, not the scientists’ advised journalist Sonia Sodha recently in The Observer rightly calling out scientists who have been ‘agents of disinformation’ during the pandemic. Sodha explains that we shouldn’t trust scientists because, ‘They are only human, subject to the same cognitive biases, the same whims of ego, as the rest of us.’ This is nothing new and doesn’t just apply to Covid-19. A handful of scientists support climate change deniers, other scientists have claimed ‘scientifically’ that the Holocaust was a hoax, and so on. In some cases, these scientists have revelled in being outliers, as Sodha notes, they nurture a ‘Galileo complex’ and see themselves as victims of ridicule along the scientific giants of history.
Sodha includes Darwin with these scientific giants. I appreciate that she was just throwing in another example of a scientist who was much derided by his contemporaries for thinking differently but who was ultimately right. Yet, Darwin also got it wrong sometimes. In Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science That Shows It, Angela Saini quotes from Darwin’s The Descent of Man:
‘The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than woman can attain – whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.’
Darwin’s evidence for this was that ‘leading writers, artists and scientists were almost all men. He assumed that this inequality reflected a biological fact’ (from Saini) and not that society at that time restricted women from attending universities, let alone pursuing careers outside of the household. Darwin may have been an innovative thinker of life sciences, but his understanding of society was clearly Victorian.
Darwin isn’t the only acclaimed scientist to sometimes appear to get it wrong. The nature of science includes understanding that knowledge about something is ongoing. Consider what we have learned in recent months about the coronavirus and how it spreads. It’s a feeble mind that thinks these steps along the way to understanding means that scientists shouldn’t be trusted. But of course, sceptics and conspiracy theorists will do just that.
How do we know the science has developed enough to be reliable, or if it is authentic if we learn about it from scientists? There is no easy answer to these questions. Broadly, I agree with Sodha to believe the science and that will often mean looking for consensus among the scientists, but even that needs to be handled with care and objectivity. In recent weeks I’ve learned about the impact on climate of greenhouse gases aside from carbon, how to convert carbon to CO2e and the relationship between antigens and antibodies. In other words, in the age we live in, perhaps we all need to think like scientists.