Why ‘Truth Vs Pragmatism’ Has Created Public Distrust In Science — Unearned Wisdom
There is a major crisis in the world. Many people have stopped taking scientists seriously. The nefarious combination of fake news, faux-experts, less critical thinking, echo chambers, and confirmation bias have contributed to a confused world that no longer knows how to differentiate between what is true and false. Why can’t there be a consensus on the treatment of Covid-19, the efficacy of vaccines, and whether Ivermectin is suitable for humans? Why are people so divided about such an important topic that relates to public health?
I will not join this debate because there is already too much information out there that will argue for either side. Instead, I will try to explain why I think there is so much public distrust of the scientific consensus. The typical reason given is that scientists have gotten in wrong so many times before, that they have lost their credibility. Another strong argument that has been made is that scientific publications are actually funded by corporations and that research has been doctored to serve a political/business narrative than to serve a noble pursuit of the truth.
The question of how much of scientific knowledge is politically or financially motivated is impossible to answer. But it is, of course, a legitimate one. Another argument has been made that science itself has lead to so many disastrous consequences that it is a deep folly to have faith in it. The people who argue this point will say that nuclear weapons, addictions to technology, addictions to drugs, car accidents, the rape of nature, spying technology, propaganda through advanced communications, and are all the offspring of the scientific method. In this worldview, even Covid-19 was the result of the scientific tinkering in a laboratory.
Of course, the benefits that have been brought about by science are endless, but it cannot be denied, that for every boon that has been brought about, there has been a hidden danger. For that reason and for the political and financial incentives that is inseparable from scientific research, no one can be faulted for their skepticism in scientists.
And there is the final point, which is not trivial, that the media has lost credibility in the eyes of many people, and anything they say must be false. There is an early episode in Seinfeld when George Kostanza finally figures out how to stop being a loser in life — to just do the opposite of what he normally does. Since everything he used to do before created a miserable life for him, he came up with the brilliant idea that he should go against his instinct every time. Before he knew it, he became more successful with women, was hired by the Yankees, and moved out from his parent’s home.
Many people have this kind of relationship with traditional media outlets. They see them not as conveyors of information, but of disseminators of propaganda. Like George, the opposite of what CNN says must be true.
But I want to talk about a psychological reason for why I believe many people are reluctant to believe that the scientific consensus is true.
There are two grand lies that most educated people perpetuate: (1) we know what we know and (2) we know what we don’t know.
To know what we know means to assume that we have something figured out, and that we know we have it figured out. But this is never really true. No one can be a hundred percent sure of what they presume to know. As Descartes intuited many years ago, the knowledge of our own consciousness is the only thing we can be truly certain about. And to say that we know what we don’t know is a wicked lie, because clearly, we don’t. Otherwise, we would never discover anything new. Yet, if there is ever a ‘scientific consensus’ it must assume the opposite of these two truths. It must assume that we know what we know, that the studies and theories that have been advanced are true, and that we know what we don’t know, that is, that if we are wrong, we can only be wrong by ‘this much’ or ‘that much.’
The honest answer to every question is, of course, “maybe.” But we cannot live in constant uncertainty. So we have to amend our radical uncertainty and make probabilistic guesses about the world. We make a probabilistic guess, and we build new assumptions in our model. And I mean this in the broadest possible way. It is as true for scientific theories, as it is for simply living in the world.
The problem today is that very few people can afford to be honest. People like Fauci, who has become something of a villain in the eyes of many, cannot afford to be totally intellectually honest. And this is a major problem. Authorities need to make choices based on the best information they have. They are not acting from certainty, but from probability. But if Fauci comes out and says, “look, we don’t really know much, but here’s the best advice we have at the moment”, not many people will listen to him.
And that is a major dilemma. If Fauci is honest about his uncertainty, then he will be ineffective at nudging people in the right direction. And if he is dishonest, and acts more certain than he is, then many people will recognize this dishonesty, and interpret it as malicious intent.
There is no way out of this. Some people have suggested that there be a public debate about vaccines, for example. But the mere existence of a debate presupposes uncertainty. In other words, if it’s clear which direction people should move, then why have a debate in the first place?
And the failure to entertain opposing perspectives perpetuates further mistrust among dissenters and people who refuse to take the vaccine. The real problem here, is that there is a mismatch between truth and pragmatism.
The pragmatic answer may often times not be based on truth, and the truth may not be the pragmatic thing to do.
For example, it is true that the world is unpredictable and the future is much more random than we think. But it is pragmatic to assume that the future is more predictable than it is, in order to make long-term plans.
It is true that our sense representations of the world are inaccurate representations of the core reality, but it is pragmatic to assume that we see things as they are.
It is true that we don’t really have any certainty about our beliefs, but it may be pragmatic to act as if we do.
It is true that we don’t know the long-term effects of vaccines, but it is pragmatic to take them anyway.
It is true that the scientific establishment has been guilty of propagating lies and planting the seeds for destructive technologies, but it is pragmatic to trust that science is a public good.
It is true that large media companies have propagated many lies in the past, but it is pragmatic to not be doubtful about what they have to say.
In the end, the question is not ‘why are some people more skeptical about vaccines than others?’ but rather, why is the narrative that they have accepted? If people think they are being lied to, they will not do what is ‘pragmatic’. They will only do what is pragmatic if they think they are mostly being told the truth.
People who are trusting of the health authorities are trusting not because they think they will never be lied to, but because it is more likely than not that they are being told the truth, and that is enough for them. On the other hand, people who are more skeptical have the opposite default position. They think that they are constantly being lied to, and rarely if ever, are they told the truth. Or, if they think they are being lied to at all, they will not tolerate it.
A brief conversation takes place, between the vaccine skeptic John and the vaccine advocate David. If you have spent anytime on earth in the past year, then you have probably seen or heard this conversation play out almost verbatim.
John: So, David, are you going to take the vaccine?
David: Yes. Why the hell not?
J: Well, do you trust that it’s going to be safe?
D: I mean, I don’t know if it’s 100 percent safe but nothing is. I am just taking my doctor’s advice, and I trust that he knows more than me, since he spent all those years in med school and studied for countless hours while I played Call of Duty.
J: Yes, but you know, the consensus has often been proven wrong. It’s not like scientists have never eaten their words before. Almost all the theories of the past have been thrown out the window, and much of our current scientific knowledge is uncertain. Doctors just do what they’re told in most cases. So how can you be so confident?
D: Look, I told you. I am not 100 percent confident. And I doubt anyone is. But this is a judgment call. When I get in my car to go to work, I don’t know what will happen, but I take a chance anyway, because if I didn’t, I’d never work! Same thing with vacations. I hate flying, but if I didn’t fly, I would have never left this country. Life is full of uncertainty. We just have to do the best we can with what we know.
J: Yeah I understand that, but I’d rather take that risk with my immune system. There’s miniscule chance that I’m going to die if I get Covid, so why should I take a vaccine when it has been showed to cause heart problems with younger people and no one knows what the long term effects are?
D: Because we know that things are much worse if you get Covid. Look, tough guy, a lot of younger people have suffered from this disease. And yes, I know that the vaccine is not perfect, but no medicine or vaccine has ever been perfect. And, this isn’t just about you, this is about preventing the virus from spreading…
J: Wrong. The vaccine doesn’t prevent the spread. Have you seen the study from Country X and Country B?
D: It lowers the risk of contracting the virus, which prevents the spread!
Why does this conversation happen so frequently? And why does it make no difference? Because people don’t make decisions based on arguments, they make them out of emotions, and later justify their decisions with arguments. If they feel that the medical authorities are untrustworthy, then no argument can convince them otherwise. And if someone like David feels like it is ludicrous to presume that you better understand a medical issue better than epidemiologists and doctors, then they would have no reason to be skeptical, no matter the arguments.
So, what’s the solution? Political, media, and medical institutions need to build trust. They need to act pragmatically, but cater to people’s need for full disclosure. They need to be more open to being wrong, and more honest about what they don’t know.
Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com.