THE BLOG
05/14/2014 01:56 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2014

Science Is Not a Popularity Contest

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The interesting thing about science is that it is not about public opinion or even popular consensus. Scientific discoveries, even those that are unpopular, have a history of being borne out over time.

A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method and repeatedly confirmed through observation and experimentation. Theories can be modified as more information comes to light, and thus is scientific knowledge advanced.

Sometimes the new explanations are greeted with skepticism, and sometimes with outright hostility. Those scientific theories that either challenge (or are seen to threaten) the status quo, or entrenched political and power structures often find themselves attacked by those entities because they threaten them.

The idea that tiny, invisible things in the air and water were causing illnesses was not generally accepted until after Louis Pasteur developed germ theory in 1861. Some physicians did not make it a practice to wash their hands between patients and even mocked the theory and refused to do so. But those early adopters were proven right, and when London physician John Snow's research showing clusters of cholera cases during the epidemic of 1854 resulted in the decision to remove the handle of the water pump that was the source of the contamination, even people who did not believe in or understand germ theory benefited.

When Copernicus first presented the heliocentric model of planetary motion and placed the Sun, rather than the Earth, in the center, it actually was not seen as particularly threatening. But eventually, as others refined his work and sought to explain how it was not in conflict with church doctrine, the Catholic Church was less sanguine. By Galileo's time the Inquisition had declared heliocentrism to be formally heretical, which led to his house arrest and excommunication.

Listening to people claim that "science can't be trusted" reminds me increasingly of O.J. Simpson lawyers' argument that the more reasonable explanation for the preponderance of evidence against their client was that the evidence had to have been planted or otherwise rigged. Since they could not make a credible case against the DNA being his, the only thing left was to come up with another explanation for why it was there.

The argument that I find most specious and intellectually suspect is that the 97 percent of climate scientists who support the idea that climate change is linked to the contaminants we've been putting into the air in massive quantities since the Industrial Revolution have been compromised by money, while the tiny minority (often those paid by the polluters) remain intellectually pure.

Another argument that falls flat is the concept of demanding a level of predictive accuracy. Just as evolution cannot predict what the next successful adaptations will be with certainty, psychiatry cannot accurately identify people who will become serial killers and those who will become philanthropists.

Scientists must acknowledge a portion of the blame for this when they make declarative and firm statements -- or allow (or encourage) the media to present their research in a way that plays directly into the hands of those who would impeach their research, such as the recent NASA statement that ice melting in West Antarctica appears unstoppable. The caveat "appears" does not resonate as strongly or grab as much attention as the word "unstoppable" and phrases like "past the point of no return," so the cost of the attention-grabbing headline is the loss of credibility.

In the end, people will not decide whether the evidence for climate change fits or not. History tells us that the truth will win out. In the meantime, I continue to wonder why, even if one chooses to disregard global climate change, people are not moved to action at least by the other known ill effects (lung diseases, asthma, etc.) that are unquestioned consequences of air pollution.

That ought to be enough of a reason to act.