There is no such thing as “settled science”. When someone uses that term, they are positioning themselves firmly against the basic roots of scientific knowledge. It doesn’t matter if the person using the term has multiple degrees and has worked as a researcher for the bulk of their life; at that moment, if only for that moment, they are not a scientist, they are a science denier.
This does not mean, in any way, that all of those who argue against a concept as being settled science are going to be correct. Very often, they’re grossly incorrect about the basic facts of the topic they’re trying to address and simply using a rhetorical tool in an effort to excuse their ignorance, stubbornness or both.
The core of the problem is that science is about research and learning. This is facilitated via a process known as the scientific method. It provides steps for scientific study which are taught to children while they are still in elementary school.
Now, here’s the fun part: the scientific method itself doesn’t really exist as an absolute, any more than do strict rules of English (for those who believe otherwise, I invite them to read James Joyce, William Burroughs or e e cummings). What is termed the scientific method is really just a process for logical and fact-based analysis of data… and that process can change depending on a number of factors, such as the incorporation of data from related studies or feedback from peers. This is why, when teachers hunt for examples of the scientific method for their students, they can find process chains with anywhere from six to eleven steps. But, just as standardized rules of English are useful and overwhelmingly used, the same holds true with the scientific method.
Those varying steps are important. That’s where the real science starts. Science is about discovery and exploration, about attempting to quantify, explain and predict objects and processes. That requires gathering and interpreting data while seeking consistent results. It means that when new information is found which may affect an earlier position, that information has to be incorporated into the process. This is why different formulations of the scientific method have different step counts. Exceptions to the basic rule have been encountered, and every time an exception arises a new step has been formed to account for it.
This brings us to the key demand of science: more valid information must be sought.
Scientists are human, and they are vulnerable to common errors in reasoning. They may tend to interpret data in accordance with their personal biases. Very commonly, they extrapolate from trends and assign certainty to those extrapolations. Sometimes someone may simply get their math wrong. All of these possibilities must be checked… this is the function of peer review… but that doesn’t end the search for knowledge.
There are always more variables, even if those variables don’t seem particularly noteworthy. For an example, let’s use something very simple: the toss of a ball. One person takes a ball and throws it. Determining where it will land is among the most basic of physics problems. It’s a matter of force: how much force was used to project the ball, the angle at which the ball was thrown, and the direction of the throw are enough to allow a calculation for where the ball is going to land. That calculation is likely to be almost correct.
“Almost” because a number of other variables will be at play. There are major components which haven’t been addressed: what is the speed and direction of the wind? (tossing a ball into a hurricane is going to result in a lost ball.) Is the ground level? (tossing a ball into the Grand Canyon will result in a much longer arc than on level ground.) Lesser variables are introduced in the form of the rotation of the ball or the surface of the ball (which will affect how it travels through air, and is regularly seen in golf strokes.) Very minor variables are also involved: will the photons of sunbeams striking the surface of the ball move it an angstrom or ten? What about the gravitation pull from nearby objects?
Science is the effort to gather all applicable variables together. In a world where we continue to push the boundaries of knowledge, all applicable variables are not known. This is true for everything from space exploration to climate studies to medical research. Science is furthered by exposure and rejection of any data or assumptions known to be incorrect, no matter how beloved or widely believed they might be. This is why archaeologists are quick to explain the differences between the apatosaurus and the brontosaurus, and why physicists are likely to wince when people bring up centrifugal force when they’re describing centripetal. When incorrect data is applied it renders the result invalid. When correct data is missing from the equation because it hasn’t yet been considered or incorporated, it renders the result invalid. Science is about seeking a valid result.
Another simple example from life, this one on data sets: if one were to attempt to make a chart of the diseases and injuries which required hospitalization in the United States, a reasonable place to start would be to poll a hospital for their admission numbers over a period of time. With more funding available, the researchers might poll a larger number of hospitals nearby. Under normal circumstances this would be reasonable… but what if the time chosen was April of 2020 in New York City? The researchers would be convinced that throughout the world, virtually the only disease or injury requiring hospitalization was COVID-19. That view would seem to be confirmed when expanding the data collection from one hospital to all other hospitals within the region. It would seem to be reasonable that nearly all of the hospitalizations in, say, Topeka would also be COVID-19, and it would be fairly easy to get experts to consult the data, examine the trend lines, and endorse that interpretation.
This is the type of experience which has led to many dramatic failures of scientific consensus in the past… whether the inaccurate (and grossly offensive) belief that blacks had smaller brains – used as a defense of slavery – or the associated belief of genetic superiority and the horrors of eugenics, all the way up to the banning of Red Dye #2 and saccharin.
The misnomer of “settled science” may render associated statements questionable, but that does not mean that calling out the error renders an alternate point of view correct. Consider the example of the ball. Person A uses a basic force equation to predict where the ball will land, while calling the equation “settled science”. The toss is made into a hurricane, and the ball lands a hundred feet from the goal. Person B now has two options, one scientific, one not:
“You didn’t take into account the wind” – scientific.
“You needed to rub your lucky rabbit’s foot first” – not scientific.
They’re both refuting person A. Only one holds validity. This distinction is at the core of why many of President Trump’s pronunciations have been called anti-science. They are, just as much as the assertions of those who claim the certainty of “settled science”. The difference is that while the first group may be failing to take all data into account, Trump is taking no data, or spurious data, into account. This is what’s led to him talking about raking forests, about coronavirus disappearing during Summer, about the Earth suddenly growing cooler, about nuking hurricanes and about the magical merits of hydroxychloroquine.
This is where faith comes in.
It is noteworthy that many scientists are found to be religious. Religion and faith are not the opposite of science. Ignorance is the opposite of science. Religion and faith are a method of approaching the untestable and unquantifiable. Ignorance is a method of embracing the demonstrably untrue.
Trump is promoting ignorance, and he and some of his prominent supporters are attempting to excuse that by encouraging people to conflate that ignorance with their faith. That is not just anti-science, it’s also an attack on religion.
Trump is far from alone in this failure. Most obviously, there have long been issues with politicians who will place an arbitrary point in the fetal development process as forming the delineation where human life begins. Science has provided us with a few points in the process where an argument can be made for the beginning of distinct life, but none of them are based on time and trimesters. The arguments about the cessation of life are overwhelmingly independent of science and focused instead on social concerns. Typically, science is brought into the discussion as an excuse rather than a guidepost. This is a failure, and it should be recognized… but occasional deviations from rational analysis are a lesser concern than people who reject reason entirely, in the same way that the actions of a car thief, however bad, are tame when compared to those of a serial killer.
I have concerns about the positions of politicians who rely on experts who are willing to term things “settled science”, but they are greatly outweighed by my concerns about politicians who will discount science and evidence completely. That is where we are with President Trump, and it is one more reason among many that he is unfit for office.