Science Faces Its Own Crisis of Trust

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Science Faces Its Own Crisis of Trust

The scientific method emerged only four hundred years ago as a rational and logically defensible alternative to blind faith.  Both the technology underpinning modern society and our confidence in the predictability of nature depends on the reliability of scientific research. 

The scientific method involves seven basic steps:

  • Define a problem.
  • Gather information about the problem through observation.
  • Form a hypothesis to explain the observations.
  • Perform experiments to test the hypothesis and collect data.
  • Analyze the data.
  • Interpret the data and make conclusions. 
  • Formulate a final hypothesis.

But it isn't quite that simple.  The scientific method embodies various assumptions.  For example, the scientist must be objective in his observations.  He must share his data and methods so that others can repeat his experiments to test their validity.  His results must be falsifiable — that is, if he is wrong, there must be a way to prove that he is wrong.  Before articles are published in scientific journals, they must be vetted through the peer-review process to ensure that the results are valid.  All of these assumptions allow people to have confidence in the results of the researchers' experiments that are then presented to the world as "truth."

Since before the industrial revolution, these methods have not only informed us about our world but have borne the fruit of a great technological harvest, ranging from more and more efficient steam engines in the 1800s to faster and faster microprocessors in the 21stcentury. 

Basic science, therefore, gives us an understanding of how our world works.  When that understanding is married to technology, it yields a wealth of useful tools with which to improve our lives.  Through the ages, this has proved to be true in medicine, physics, chemistry, and every other area of science. 

In fact, virtually all of our 21st century decisions are driven by our reliance on scientific research.  Whether it's energy and climate policy, health care, marketing practices, or investment decisions; we rely consciously and unconsciously on scientific research to guide us. 

But recently, our trust in science has been shaken.  In fact, evidence is rapidly emerging that suggests that the public should not automatically place its trust in reports from the world's scientific journals.  For instance, New Scientist

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