Veronika Tait: The scientific method will help us solve our problems

Some have forgotten how far we have come with the aid of science.

Nearly 400 years ago, the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei championed the model proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus that Earth revolves around the sun. This was in complete contradiction to the teachings from the Catholic Church at the time.

The church told him,

“[You] have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world…, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world.”

As Galileo’s technical defense fell flat, he was forbidden from teaching heliocentrism and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. The sad conclusion of his life is rarely what we think of today as we hail the “father of the scientific method.”

I fear that some today have forgotten how far we’ve come as a direct result of science. Rather than relying on the gut assumptions of authority figures, scientists of the past revolutionized life as we know it by using a systematic approach to finding truth. This method, based on reason, welcomed skepticism and required rigor. Its implementation has led to extended lifespans, space exploration and sophisticated technological advancements to name a few.

Just as those from 17th century Italy clung to the geocentric model, other beliefs once heralded as common sense have crumbled under scientific scrutiny.

As renowned astronomer Carl Sagan wrote,

“That the earth is flat was once obvious. ... That bloodsucking leeches cure most diseases was once obvious. That some people are naturally and by divine decree slaves was once obvious. … The truth may be puzzling, or counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held beliefs. Experiment is how we get a handle on it.”

Too many adults today respond to evidence by saying, “You can get data to say anything,” as though dismissing the scientific method is as easy as dismissing advice on a fortune cookie. When we immediately discard evidence simply because it supports a policy from a platform different than our own, we should take great pause.

The beauty of science is that it can help shape our views. As philosopher David Hume said, “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” When we allow confirmation bias free rein by ignoring or dismissing any contrary evidence, we allow for the dogmatic pseudoscientific thinking of the past free rein as well.

Scientists have been wrong, and I would never advocate that we switch from blindly following the authority of the Catholic church, as in the time of Galileo, to those in their ivory towers. Research that fails to replicate, misuses data collection or analysis, or relies on logical fallacies is deeply problematic. However, results disagreeing with our views are not, on their own, proof that the results are illegitimate.

Policymakers return us to the dark ages when they fail to prioritize research spending, transparency and data collection, or rely on unsound decision-making methods. For example, when social psychologist Irving Janis interviewed policymakers, he reported that they “often do not use a reflective problem-solving approach. How do they usually arrive at their decisions? If you ask, they are likely to tell you ... they do it mostly by the seat of their pants.”

Making decisions with our gut instincts is appropriate in certain contexts, however, as behavioral economist Dan Ariely can attest, “Our irrational behaviors are neither random nor senseless — they are systematic and predictable. We all make the same types of mistakes over and over, because of the basic wiring of our brains.”

We are all at the mercy of our individual experiences, biases and cognitive limitations.

The same methods that led scientists to predict the 2017 Great American Solar Eclipse, down to the second, can be used to investigate public policy. Which gun regulations reduce gun-related deaths? Which welfare programs reduce poverty long term? Which policing and criminal justice reforms reduce police brutality and recidivism?

These questions cannot be answered using systematic reasoning, controlled experiments and replication unless we prioritize the scientific method. Each of these problems have cause and effect relationships that are complicated, but as scientific history has shown us, not beyond our understanding.

What I plead with voters and policymakers is that we cling to the scientific method over other claimed methods of finding truth. The method is more important than any one claim. Scrutiny, skepticism and counter ideas strengthen our understanding of the world. If something is true, then it can withstand being analyzed and questioned by experts. But it is only by thorough and systematic investigations of hypotheses with replication that we can have confidence in our findings.

It’s not through common sense. Nor religious dogma. Nor intuition. Nor anecdotal experience.

Science is fraught with errors, biases and conflicts of interest, but the only thing that beats science is better science.

Veronika Tait

Veronika Tait, Saratoga Springs, is an associate professor at Snow College and writes about compassion and evidence-based practices for Psychology Today.