It’s no secret that public trust in the media and the scientific community has reached a low point.
Political divisions and growing distrust of the “other side” have pushed people toward echo chambers. One group uncritically accepts a claim as trustworthy. Another group immediately discounts the same claim, even if it is well supported. To discern whether a scientific claim is reliable, we must balance healthy skepticism and appropriate trust.
Skepticism is not a bad thing. A skeptical person simply asks for evidence before accepting a claim as valid. They withhold judgment until the full case has been made. But often what is labeled healthy skepticism these days is really cynicism or distrust. It’s not being skeptical to automatically assume the media or scientific experts are lying. That’s just being cynical. So how do Christians know who deserves our trust?
Challenging the status quo is a normal and healthy part of science; it happens every day…But not everyone does this hard work to vet their claims, so not all claims made by scientists are equally trustworthy.
A good first step is to become aware of the difference between science and what we call pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is difficult to define, and people may disagree on where to draw the line. Usually scientists label a claim as pseudoscience when the researchers don’t follow the usual methods for obtaining and reporting evidence. Often these suspect claims are used to sell products or validate a certain ideology or lifestyle.
Weight-loss programs and vitamin supplements are often rife with pseudoscientific claims. People may waste money, but these claims are usually not too harmful. Today’s misinformation about COVID-19 is another story. It is a matter of life and death for hundreds of thousands of people. If you learn to recognize some common red flags, you can avoid confusing pseudoscientific ideas with solid science.
Warning signs of pseudoscientific claims:
- Explanations are made up after the fact to fit whatever outcomes are observed.
- Scientific-sounding terms or jargon are used in imprecise, incorrect, or undefined ways.
- Statistics are presented in decontextualized ways, often without properly referencing the source.
- Links and references (if they are provided at all) are internal and do not take you to sources outside the publisher or website.
- Cited evidence is anecdotal or ad hoc and does not come from studies that systematically gathered empirical evidence.
- There are built-in explanations for cases when the idea fails to explain others’ results. (In other words, it’s hard to disprove the idea.)
- Proponents often claim they have been persecuted or silenced by the scientific community.
- Information is presented as special or secret insights available only to the privileged few who have taken the time (or spent the money) to learn about it.
- Findings are not published by reputable sources like peer-reviewed scientific journals, and their claims are reported in obscure news sources.
- Cited experts do not have recognized credentials or they lack qualifications in the field relevant to their claims.
- Ideas from outside the realm of science are presented as scientifically established.
Challenging the status quo is a normal and healthy part of science; it happens every day. Scientists try to convince others in their field to accept new ideas through presentations at scientific meetings and publishing in peer-reviewed journals. But not everyone does this hard work to vet their claims, so not all claims made by scientists are equally trustworthy.
Increasingly we are seeing the language of science and expertise co-opted to make irresponsible and potentially dangerous claims. Have you heard that the climate is changing mostly due to volcanoes or the sun? Have you heard that face masks are more dangerous than COVID because they trap carbon dioxide? These claims are overwhelmingly rejected by the scientific community. But most of us don’t have the time or academic background to read, understand, and apply primary scientific literature for ourselves. We need to rely on others to communicate about the latest discoveries and developments. How do we maintain healthy skepticism towards fringe views while keeping our minds open to new information?
Indicators that scientific information is likely to be reliable:
- The article has a by-line and a publication date. The author has the training needed to understand the primary source material. They have experience writing about or teaching science.
- The publisher of the article has a reputation for accurate and objective reporting. Their editorial process ensures fact-checking and vetted sources. (If you are unfamiliar with a publisher, check it out on a site like mediabiasfactcheck.com.)
- The article references peer-reviewed scientific journals or studies conducted by reputable research institutions or universities. It includes citations or footnotes that document primary sources. (Be aware of potential bias in research commissioned by political lobbying groups or corporations.)
- The qualifications and affiliations of the experts cited in the article are clear and relevant to the topic.
- The expert’s peers in the field are invited to offer counter-claims or note remaining questions or concerns.
- Authors take care to differentiate between established facts and unproven hypotheses, certainties and probabilities, and causes and correlations. They don’t make sweeping claims or exaggerate risks or benefits.
In these fraught times, when people in our communities of faith fall victim to unbridled cynicism and distrust on one hand, or uncritical acceptance of the latest conspiracy theory on the other, it’s important that we speak with discernment and reason within our spheres of influence.
This article draws from Unit 2: Ways of Knowing, one of 15 units comprising our science and faith curriculum INTEGRATE. If you are a teacher, parent, or small group leader—or you simply want to educate yourself about how science and theology work—please check it out.
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