I. “Individuals must accept as known more decision relevant science (DRS) than they can possibly understand or verify for themselves.”
The motto of the Royal Society is Nullius in verba, which translates literally into “take no one’s word for it.” But something—namely, any pretense of being a helpful guide to getting the benefits of scientific knowledge—is definitely lost in a translation that literal.
If you aren’t nodding your head violently up and down, then consider this possibility. You learn next week that you have endocrinological deficit that can be effectively treated but only if you submit to a regimen of daily medications. You certainly will do enough research to satisfy yourself—to satisfy any reasonable person in your situation—that this recommendation is sound before you undertake such treatment.
But what will you do? Will you carefully read and evaluate all the studies that inform your physician’s recommendation? If those studies refer, as they inevitably will, to previous ones the methods of which aren’t reproduced in those papers, will you read those, too? If the studies you read refer to concepts with which you aren’t familiar, or use methods which you have no current facility, will you enroll in a professional training program to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills? And once you’ve done that, will you redo the experiments—all of them; not just the ones reported in the papers that support the prescribed treatment but in any those studies relied on and extended—so you can avoid taking anyone’s word on what the results of such studies actually were as well?
Of course not. Because by the time you do those things, you’ll be dead. To live well—or just to live—individuals (including scientists) must accept much more DRS than they can ever hope to make sense of on their own.
Science’s way of knowing involves crediting as true only inferences rationally drawn from observation. This was—still is—a radical alternative to other ways of knowing that feature truths revealed by some mystic source to a privileged few, who alone enjoy the authority to certify the veracity of such insights. That system is what the founders of the Royal Society had in mind when they boldly formulated their injunction to “take no one’s word for it.” But it remains the case that to get the benefits of the distinctive, and distinctively penetrating, mode of ascertaining knowledge they devised, we must take the word of those who know what’s been ascertained by those means—while being sure not to take the word of anyone else (Shapin 1994).
II. “Individuals acquire the insights of DRS by reliably recognizing it.”
But how exactly does one do that? How do reasonable, reasoning people who need to use science for an important decision but who cannot plausibly figure out what science knows for themselves figure out who does know what science knows?
We can rule out one possibility right away: that members of the public figure out who genuinely possesses knowledge of what science knows by evaluating the correctness of what putative experts believe. To do that, members of the public would have to become experts in the relevant domain of knowledge themselves. We have already determined (by simply acknowledging the undeniable) that they lack both the capacity and time to do that.
Instead they have to become experts at something else: recognizing valid sources of science. They become experts at that, moreover, in the same way they become experts at recognizing anything else: by using a conglomeration of cues, which operate not as necessary and sufficient conditions, but as elements of prototypical representations (“cat,” “advantageous chess position,” “ice cream sandwich,” “expert”) that are summoned to mind by mental processes, largely unconscious, that rapidly assimilate the case at hand to a large inventory of prototypes acquired through experience. In a word (or two words), they use pattern recognition (Margolis 1993).
This is equivalent to the answer that Popper gave (in an essay the title, and much more, of which are the inspiration for this one) in answering the near-identical question about how we come to know what is known by science. Popper’s target was a cultural trope of sensory empiricism that treated as “scientific knowledge” only that which one has observed for oneself. After impaling this view on the spear tips of a series of reductios, Popper explains that most things we know”—i.e., know to be known to science—“we have learnt by example, by being told.” In appraising the conformity of any such piece of information to the qualities that invest it with the status of scientific knowledge, moreover, an individual must rely on “his knowledge of persons, places, things, linguistic usages, social conventions, and so on” (ibid., p. 30).
To be sure, powers of critical reasoning play a role. We must calibrate this facility of recognition by “learning how to criticize, how to take and to accept criticism, how to respect truth” (ibid, p. 36), a view Baron (1993) and Keil (2012) both develop systematically.
But the objects of the resulting power to discern valid science are not the qualities that make it valid: those are simply far too “complex,” far too “difficult for the average person to understand (Baron, 1993, p, 193). What this faculty attends to instead are the signifiers of validity implicit in informal, everyday social processes that vouch for the good sense of relying on the relevant information in making important decisions (Keil 2010, 2012). Popper characterizes the aggregation of these processes as “tradition,” which he describes as “by far the most important source of our knowledge” (1962b, p. 36).
It is worth noting that although Popper here is referring to the process by which ordinary science knowledge disseminates to nonscientists, there is no reason to think that scientists are any less in need of a valid-knowledge recognition capacity, or that they acquire or exercise it in a fundamentally different way. Indeed, there is ample reason to think that it couldn’t possibly differ from the faculty that members of the public use to recognize valid science (Shapin 1994) aside from its being more finely calibrated to the particular insights and methods needed to be competent in the production of the same (Margolis 1987, 1996).
“How do we gain our knowledge about how to analyze data?” ask Andrew Gelman and Keith O’Rourke (2015, pp., 161-2). By “informal heuristic reasoning,” they reply, of the sort that enables those immersed in a set of practice to see the correctness of an answer to a problem before, and often without ever being able to give a fully cogent account of, why.
Baron, J. Why Teach Thinking? An Essay. Applied Psychology 42, 191-214 (1993).
Gelman, A. & O’Rourke, K. Convincing Evidence. in Roles, Trust, and Reputation in Social Media Knowledge Markets: Theory and Methods (ed. E. Bertino & A.S. Matei) 161-165 (Springer International Publishing, Cham, 2015).
Keil, F.C. Running on Empty? How Folk Science Gets By With Less. Current Directions in Psychological Science 21, 329-334 (2012).
Keil, F.C. The feasibility of folk science. Cognitive science 34, 826-862 (2010).
Margolis, H. Patterns, thinking, and cognition : a theory of judgment (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1987).
Margolis, H. Paradigms and Barriers (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993).
Margolis, H. Dealing with risk : why the public and the experts disagree on environmental issues (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1996).
Popper, K.R. On the Sources of Knowledge and of Ignorance. in Conjectures and Refutations 3-40 (Oxford University Press London, 1962b).
Shapin, S. A social history of truth : civility and science in seventeenth-century England (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1994).