by Austin Lam, medical student at the University of Toronto
Want Trust in Science? Think Common Sense.
Trust in science is not a new topic. Yet it remains an important area of discussion, with potentially serious consequences for public health, particularly with vaccinations. The larger underlying issue here is the idea of science that people generally have and how they relate to this idea of science.
I want to explore a new entry point to this discussion: Common Sense.
In a nutshell, trust in science is about common sense — it is what underlies any credible notion of public confidence or trust in the scientific enterprise and scientific community.
Canadian writer John Ralston Saul has written about common sense. It is our shared knowledge and crucially, “[it] is tied to our sense of society — our sense that society exists.” Common sense is not plain. It is not the attitude of I am down-to-earth, dealing with reality, while you, the experts, are playing with abstractions. Rather, to quote Saul, common sense is “an expression of shared knowledge, something which links us to [each other] and acts as … a foundation of undefined commonality which allows us to engage in conversation.”
What does this mean for trust in science? I believe that it means stepping back and appreciating common sense about how we live.
How We Live
Building on the traditions of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Wittgenstein, philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor — in Retrieving Realism — articulated a rigorous and nuanced account of how we live in the world:
Ordinary, engaged coping is primordial, not only because it is in fact our first way of being in the world, which we can never abandon, but also because the decentered, critical stance can only arise from within this ordinary way of being, suspending it completely in relation to our objects of study, but always relying on our everyday coping skills.
In essence, we approach our shared world with a sense of practical reasonableness: we generally act with an “in-order-to” in mind. I will engage in X in-order-to Y. In life, we do not live based on pure abstractions. Life is not a controlled environment in which I make experiments. In other words, we simply do not live in an abstracted scientific mode. There is something more primordial here, as Heidegger termed it.
What does this talk of primordial engagement amount to? Two main points.
(1) As noted by Dreyfus and Taylor, “[t]here are two powerful positions being defended today — let us call them modern scientism on one hand, and different brands of subjectivism and relativism on the other.” Dreyfus and Taylor introduced a third possibility: pluralistic robust realism. That is, there are (i) multiple ways of interrogating reality (plural), (ii) revealing truths independent of us (robust realism), and (iii) no single mode of questioning yields a unified picture (stay plural).
Pluralistic robust realism inspires a sense of intellectual humility. It avoids the position that science explains all modes of being since, on Dreyfus and Taylor’s account, “we should conclude that there are several ways of describing nature all of which may be true.”
(2) This sense of humility leads into the second point: the limits of the scientific enterprise. These limits can be understood in terms of “our essential feature: to be world disclosers and that this essential way of being enables us to understand… each specific understanding of human nature underwrites a specific understanding of human goods.” Science can tell us what things are, how they are, why they are, where they are, and when they were or will be. But it cannot make the leap to telling us how things ought to be. Rather, science already operates within the context of our shared understanding of human goods.
So, how should the scientific community and scientific enterprise writ large move forward to building and maintaining trust? Tap into our shared values, our shared understanding of human goods or as Saul put it — “our sense of society.” Crucially, this shared sense of society may very well escape precise definition as it is “a foundation of undefined commonality which allows us to engage in conversation.” And maybe it doesn’t need to be defined. Rather, what may be required is a complementary union between the scientific community/enterprise and a new Romanticism — “The energising force of Romanticism is that it promotes humanity against … the broad, commercial, facile manipulation of science beyond anything that evidence allows.”
A recognition of our shared world and how we approach it means that the scientific community needs to speak with our larger society, not to it. It means using common sense about how we live: primordially, not theoretically. This means tapping into our shared values, possibly through a complementary union of science and a revitalized romanticism.
It makes sense to look at the issue of trust in science through the lens of common sense. John Ralston Saul quoting Voltaire: “Among the Romans, sensus communis meant not only common sense, but also humanity, sensibility.”
Brooks, Catherine F. “Are Science Communicators Chasing Public Attention at the Expense of Trust in Science?” Scientific American Blogs, Springer Nature, Sept. 13, 2018, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/are-science-communicators-chasing-public-attention-at-the-expense-of-trust-in-science/.
Dreyfus, Hubert, and Charles Taylor. Retrieving Realism. Harvard University Press, 2015.
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Saul, John Ralston. On Equilibrium. Penguin Canada, 2001.