Dec 2, 2009

Does "Trust" play an important role in science?

I think so. I intend to one day write a bit more about it.


Trust in fellow scientists & published results
Trust in equipment, techniques & presuppositions
Trust in rationality & reasoning
Trust in the comprehensibility & consistency of the universe


  1. there was something awhile ago about how horrendously scientists use their data. i wish i could remember where i read about it... im not surprised though.

  2. I suppose it does, but I'm not sure if that means anything.

    Trust in peers/published results is true of any field on inquiry. It's not fundamentally necessary for science to work. I mean, In principle I could spend half my life verifying all of classical physics (just to make sure Newton/Maxwell got it right) before I do any experiments of my own. Science would just take a lot longer that way.

    The second one just follows from the other three, so it isn't a unique “thing scientists trust” in it's own right.

    The third one is once again true of everything. It would be pretty difficult to make inferences about anything if we don't trust reason itself.

    The fourth one is obviously the most interesting. I would actually question whether the universe is all that comprehensible/consistent (and that science just does it's best with what it's got). I do this on two grounds:
    - Firstly I've just had a semester of quantum physics, and that stuff is not comprehensible by any stretch of the imagination. Though I admit our ability to describe it probably means it's consistent. In fact it could probably be argued that very little of the natural world is comprehensible. People can understand simple mechanistic, cause-and-effect systems (which isn't surprising for evolutionary reasons) but anything different and we simply describe and make analogies.
    - Secondly, and more importantly, there is something fishy about the logic of that assertion. It reminded me of an analogous argument in your John Lennox book that went something like this:
    Look how perfectly placed the earth is to make scientific discoveries. From our position in the galaxy we have an excellent view of the galactic core, surrounding galaxies, the cosmic background etc. We are in such a perfect position to make all these wonderful scientific discoveries, so it looks a bit like someone put us here to make those discoveries.
    The obvious problem with that argument is that we have no idea what discoveries we would have made had we been somewhere else. There could be all sorts of exotic and fundamental phenomena that are visible from the galactic core, but not here. We simply can't say whether or not earth is a good place to do science unless we've been elsewhere. Equivalently, how can we assert that the universe is comprehensible/consistent based purely on those parts which we can comprehend/describe? I suppose you cold argue that we've already discovered most of it (and most of it is comprehensible). But that seems like a pretty big claim to make. In any case I'd be interested to hear your thoughts if you do get around to writing about it sometime.

  3. Actually, I thought the second and third ones were quite interesting too. I liked to keep it to four points, so smuggled in 'presuppositions' under no. two.

    It would be tempting to reply with an essay, but this is neither the time nor the place. I think this kind of thing could play out well in a public discussion sometime.

    I didn't notice that particular argument in Lennox, but I just skimmed that book, perhaps as it was an intro. I am aware it is one bullet in the ID armoury, largely courtesy of a quite distinguished astronomer. Your response to it strikes me as being analogous to: a dude who strikes the jackpot then gets upset about the fact he can't buy his own African country, or something else way OTT. i.e. "what we have is good, but I (always) want better!". I think it is accepted that compared to many places, Earth is indeed a good place to do science (and we are 'good' creatures at doing said science.)

    In any case, my point was not that scientists are unique in their level of trust (though that would certainly be an interesting claim); but rather the opposite i.e. they are, whether they realise it or not, sharing their conceptual toys. It's also nice that "trust" has an etymological relationship; at least in the greek; to "faith".