Neither absolute nor relative. Science, human and credible

According to some scientists, when philosophers talk about truth in science, they are guilty of serious flaws, including not spending time in the lab and not referring to real science (H.R. Kricheldorf, Get the right to science and medicine, Springer 2018). This is certainly not the case with Naomi Oreskes, who arrived at philosophy through the history of science, an obligatory path to avoid the general criticisms mentioned above. Harvard researcher asks Why do you trust science? (Bollati Boringhieri, pp. 208, €20.00). Good question, in times of epidemics, to analyze data, worry about returning to normalcy. Good question, when we witness daily struggles among scientists, when scientific skepticism doesn’t resonate if it’s not appropriate, while science is often used in politics for propaganda. Specializing in the history of Earth sciences, Oreskes was already known for the study conducted with colleague Erik M. Conway, a NASA registered science historian, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obliterated the Truth, From Smoking to Global Warming (Ed. Ambiente, 2019). Here the authors reconstruct the mechanisms of disinformation put in place to weaken theses about global warming from the middle of the last century onward. This time Oreskes changes his strategy: He explains how science works and why, without a doubt, it’s worth believing. Thus begins an exciting adventure about how we know each other today. Science is disciplined and controllable knowledge. We come immediately to the central premise of the volume: we should trust science not thanks to a “magic” method for the sake of absolute certainty. We have to trust science because it is “a societal activity of experts, who use various methods to gather empirical evidence and scrutinize the conclusions they draw from it.” That is why history has happened to support false theories: for reasons of cultural formation, instrumental weaknesses, and even metaphysical and religious beliefs. We are at the center of a topic dear to famous philosophers such as Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and Larry Loudan; We are close to investigations from science studies and the sociologist of science, who insisted from Robert Merton to Bruno Latour on the social and human dimension of scientific “facts”. But August Comte already wrote: “If it is not a question of knowing what a scientific method is, but of having such clear and profound knowledge that you can actually use it, you should think about it in practice.” That’s why Oreskes studies science in action and remembers the astonishing cases of theories that were declared wrong and then re-evaluated, such as Wegener’s continental drift. What allowed these theories to come back into vogue and prove their validity? Trading ideas. There was no censorship: some ideas remained there, and after passing expert opinion (today it happens with judges, peer review processes that happen at the stage of evaluating scientific publications) may have continued to cause confusion. But when ideas are expressed, they can take unexpected and instructive trips into history. Are judges sufficient to ensure scientific and avoid excluding theories from the category of science? no. Scholars need to recruit people of all origins, backgrounds, religions, and genders. In this regard, Oryscus recalls that feminist epistemology, especially thanks to the work of Helen Longino and Sandra Harding, has demonstrated some unconscious discriminatory dynamics in science: societies of highly homogeneous people allow for preconceived notions due to shared mindsets that are reflected in scientific practice. The best cognitive antidote to good science is difference. So we have to believe in science because it produces reliable knowledge. Because it is a censored, democratic collective enterprise with an antidote to bias. The best possible knowledge. But do we not risk falling into relativism if we accept that science is such a “human” project? Where is the objective truth that everyone expects? Oreskes points out that the opposite of relativism is absolute, not objective. So yes, one can believe in science because it reaches objectivity. Objectivity which first evaluated the limits, contradictions, and empirical property of theories. Values ​​influence science, but science has values. How to take care of others and the planet, the “common home”, a value that can be achieved with the contribution of science: in this Oreskes says he believes, and refers to Pope Francis. We can agree with you.

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