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Book Review: Why Trust Science?

Date:22 July 2020
Why Trust Science?
Why Trust Science?

Book Review:  N. Oreskes (2019). Why Trust Science? Princeton: Princeton University Press.

By Dr. Lisa Herzog

Many questions around sustainability require the integration of different forms of knowledge, including scientific knowledge. Scientists warned about climate change and other environmental issues early on―but why should societies listen to them? Why should policies be based on scientific insights? This question is obviously of great relevance, as the Corona crisis has once more shown. In the 2019 book Why Trust Science? Harvard historian of science Naomi Oreskes answers it, in dialogue with colleagues from other fields.

Many readers with an interest in sustainability probably know Oreskes from her 2004 Science article on climate change (“Beyond the ivory tower. The scientific consensus on climate change,” Science (2004) 306 (5702):1686) or her 2011 book, with Eric M. Conway, on obfuscation strategies by industries such as tobacco or oil Merchants of Doubt. How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. London et al.: Bloomsbury, 2011). In Why Trust Science? she enters more theoretical territory, which she illustrates with case studies from the history of science. The book is based on her 2016 Tanner Lectures; it consists of an introduction by political theorist Stephen Macedo, Oreskes’s two-part lectures, comments by historian and sociologist of science Susan Lindee, philosopher Marc Lange, climate scientists Ottmar Edenhofer and Martin Kowarsch, and psychologist and political scientist Jon A. Krosnick, and a final reply by Oreskes.

So, “why trust science?”, according to Oreskes? Not because there would be “a” scientific method that we could always rely on, she insists. Oreskes sketches parts of the history of philosophy about science to make this point, arguing that while certain methods did proof successful, the idea that such methods alone would produce knowledge without doubt could not be defended. Empirical methods are always informed by theoretical assumptions (and, one might add, the range of methods that are successfully being used in and across different fields is actually dazzlingly long and unwieldy).

Instead of relying on methods, Oreskes argues, it is the consensus of scientists that matters for creating reliable knowledge. She joins the ranks of thinkers such as Fleck, Duhem, Quine, Kuhn, Feyerabend, and the “Edinburgh school” in science and technology studies, who all have emphasized that science is a social enterprise, in which all claims are put under critical scrutiny by peers and errors are corrected over time. For at least some of these thinkers, including Oreskes, this is also why science can aspire to objectivity, even though it always remains fallible.

To be sure, there are certain conditions for a consensus to be a criterion for objectivity: it must have come about under the right conditions. An important condition, which Oreskes takes up from feminist philosophers of science, is diversity. It ensures that claims are scrutinized from a variety of perspectives. As she puts it (p. 54): “diversity does not heal all epistemic ills, but ceteris paribus a diverse community that embraces criticism is more likely to detect and correct error than a homogenous and self-satisfied one.”

However, I would add that even a diverse community can err, especially if it is motivated by something other than the search for truth. Consensus must come about for the right reasons – and this returns us to the question of methods, a topic that I here cannot pursue, but that is also taken up in the reply by Lange and Oreskes’ response.

In the second lecture, Oreskes discusses fascinating case studies of things going wrong in science. In each case, she argues that either there was actually no consensus, or it was marred by the exclusion of important perspectives. For example, the “limited energy theory”, a 19th century claim about women not being suited for higher education (which would exhaust their energy and thus harm their reproductive capacities) was not only based on ill-chosen methodological assumptions and tiny empirical samples; its proponents also ignored crucial criticisms raised by… women! The rejection of continental drift by American scientists in the mid-20th century is an interesting case for how cultural predilections (in this case, a rejection of “European” theory-driven approaches) led a whole field astray. The three other case studies are eugenics, the relation between hormonal birth control and depression, and dental flossing (and, in the afterword, sunscreen). In virtue of their flawed development, none of these scientific ‘mistakes’, Oreskes shows, can be used to build a “parallel case” argument along the lines of “scientists got it wrong there, so they might also have gotten it wrong in the case of climate change.”

In the Coda, Oreskes also admonishes scientists to be honest and open about their values―often, such values, e.g. a love of nature, are shared by other groups. This is another possible basis for trust: it shows scientists as human beings like all others, and makes them more approachable.

Oreskes’ arguments are then discussed by a number of distinguished commentators. For reasons of scope, I can only mention two here. Historian and sociologists of science Susan Lindee points out that trust in science might also be generated by reminding sceptics that they draw on scientific insights all the time in their everyday life―whether it concerns toasters or frozen peas. Lindee sketches how, historically, scientists distanced themselves from “mere” “technology”, not least in order to deflect responsibility for some of the horrible ways in which it had been put to use (think about the nuclear bomb). But this distance, she holds, also deprives us of a valuable tool for communicating about science and creating trust in it.

It is interesting that this self-imposed distance from technology seems to have a distinctly US-American flavor, with Vannevar Bush’s text Science, the Endless Frontier as a key event; it is not clear whether the same could be said for all European societies. One might speculate that this could be one factor for explaining the different levels of trust in science in different countries. Oreskes is not convinced by Lindee’s approach, arguing that technology has often worked without scientists understanding why it did. But, on my view, that response seems overly academic – at least for practical questions of how to build trust, Lindee’s point still stands.

In his commentary, political scientist and psychologist Jon Krosnick, while not questioning the potential reliability of science, points to the replication crises in many fields and the problematic incentive structures in academia, where quantity is often valued over quality. Oreskes responds by questioning the how widespread these problems are, with good arguments―but her dismissal of problematic incentive structures in at least some fields seems too quick. Krosnick is certainly right that many academic fields need to get their own house in order, and also care more about establishing an ethos of scientific integrity. Where Oreskes, in turn, seems right, and where Krosnick has a blind spot, is the danger of conflicts of interest when research is funded by private industries or ideologically motivated agents.

For those familiar with philosophy of science and questions about what makes science objective, the book provides an interesting overview of various debates, but maybe not too much that is new (apart from the historical case studies). But for those who have no background in this field, and are looking for an entry point for thinking about such questions, it should be a great read―well-presented, far-ranging and yet very accessible.

Arguably, all scientists in today’s world―but in particular those working on controversial yet existentially important topics such as climate change and sustainability―have a responsibility to think about their own role in society and about the ways in which they position themselves vis-à-vis sceptics. Fortunately, the relation between science and society is not as bad in all countries as it is in the US, which is the focus of this book when it comes to contemporary examples. Nonetheless, climate denialism and wild conspiracy theories are circulating everywhere, and they require scientists and scholars to take a stance.

On a practical and political level, however, trust in science has to do not only with the basic questions Oreskes addresses in her book, but also with practical questions about science communication and the place of scientists in society. Once the question “Why trust science?” has been answered theoretically, the next pressing question is: “How to build trust in science?” If science is perceived as an inaccessible ‘other’, in which only people with different value systems or from more privileged backgrounds can take part, it is hard to build relationships of trust, even with the most advanced tools of science communication or the funniest online videos. And, to make a further point, what if science communication is drowned out by a media system and digital sphere in which vested interests can distort public discourse, and funny cat videos get more attention that messages about climate change?

In other words, there are larger societal and political questions around the issue of “trust in science”, with regard to scientific claims about sustainability but also more generally speaking, which Oreskes touches only in passing. For answering them, it is not enough to look at the internal processes of science―we also need to look at broader social structures. In order to tackle climate change, we need societies that are able to learn and to adapt quickly, to take into account various perspectives and to react to feedback. All these processes―and not only the transmission of scientific knowledge into society―require trust, and so we need to ask what the conditions for these forms of trust are. Maybe the Corona crisis, and the different ways in which countries have dealt with it, will provide important insights into that fascinating topic. Oreskes’ Why trust Science? is a great starting point, but other pieces of the puzzle are needed to complement the picture.

Lisa Herzog is associate professor at the Faculty of Philosophy. Her research focuses on social and economic justice, workplace democracy, and the relation between democracy and capitalism. 

Contact: l.m.herzog
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