There is a lot of buzz about what constitutes ‘established science’ on social media these days. It’s largely mentioned in fights between anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, COVID-19 minimizers (or outright disbelievers) and their respective opponents. You’ve probably seen memes about how ‘science’ told us it was okay to spray kids with DDT or told us that smoking was beneficial or how it was waging war on egg producers, or how it made mistakes about drugs that were later recalled – all aiming to show how scientists are corruptable and wrong and the science always changes and can’t be trusted.
The common thread between all the anti-science crap you see posted is the idea that you can just believe what seems best to you. This is deeply misguided. The whole point of science is to make it harder to fool yourself. Humans are terribly easy to fool, and the easiest person for you to fool is you.
The common tactic employed by these memes is deliberately misconstruing science as a conscious actor. They say that science ‘tells us’ lies or ‘said’ one thing and then another or ‘waged a smear campaign’ or any number of other verbs. Science doesn’t verb. Science is not an actor. Science is a tool. Science is a method for finding answers that are true. You can’t ask your screwdriver to explain the meaning of life and you don’t expect it to wage a smear campaign for the exact same reason. Tools are used (and misused) by humans, not the other way around.
So who is the real actor in these memes? It varies a bit, but mostly the actors are trying to achieve some objective. Some are marketing departments and newsrooms. Some are companies trying to find marketable solutions to problems. Some are governments and public figures. In 100% of the cases, they were humans and therefore prone to error. It doesn’t make sense to blame ‘science’ for when a tobacco company trotted out their paid medical spokesperson to claim that smoking made you healthy. There are plenty of people to blame, but trying to pin it on the scientific method is just a crude attempt to sway public opinion, usually for nefarious purposes.
Why is there so much anti-science propaganda in social media? It turns out that there are a lot of reasons. It’s partially tribalism, identity politics, troll farming, snake oil marketing and even a symptom of the simple effort required to determine whether someone is actually an expert. One issue we clearly face is the problem of limited human knowledge. Science has allowed us to build on one another’s knowledge and experience so efficiently that it now takes decades to become an expert in a given field.
It is possible to verify that others who have spent their lifetimes delving into a specific arena of knowledge are correct, but very few have the time or resources to reproduce experiments in the bleeding edge of our collective knowledge. Becoming an expert in multiple fields is often impossible. Even keeping up with even the implications and developments of new research is very hard work these days. It’s easy to see how those claiming to have a truth that isn’t accepted by ‘mainstream science’ could gain traction, even with high school levels of scientific literacy.
It’s ironic that real established science is exactly what is empowering people to create and spread anti-science memes. A random person in outer east Mongolia can post something that will be seen by thousands or even millions of people microseconds later, all over the world. This only happens because science works.
There is a pretty good test for determining whether the science is ‘established’ in a given subject. It’s not foolproof, of course, but here it is: Established science means that you can trust that the current theories are going to give you pretty good answers to the questions you ask and it’s going to save you time and effort when you want to do something useful with those ideas. In short, you can be sure that science is established when it becomes engineering.
If you can build something using a theory and people are willing to pay for it, it’s established science. It’s made the transition from hypotethical science to trustworthy enough for productivity. Everyday items fall into this category. Smartphones, WiFi, GPS, blood glucose monitors, CO2 sensors, composites, and so much more. Lots of (currently) politically controversial things fall into this category as well – like climate models, mRNA vaccines, GMOs and anything else that threatens the established economy.
If you can make and sell a million of something, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be engineering based on established science. If you are still arguing that mRNA vaccines aren’t established science, you are about 20 years late.