does perfect rationality exist?

jaskaw at Being Human blog brings up a point that is at the forefront rationality, economics and scientific-type thinking.

to just accept the widely accepted fact that air consists of collection of different gases you need “faith” in that science can really resolve and fully explain this kind of things

I see what he’s getting at and agree to some extent.  The general public accepts 99.9% of the basic scientific principles at face value (just intuitively) without questioning them.  But is this faith akin to religious faith?

We accept scientific principles not because we have some deep religious trust in our scientist (maybe some of the big guns have become an exception) but because the public knows, on some level, the type of rigid attitude scientific method implies.

Its a shame, but we, for the most part, no longer teach children about classic science experiments in school or even much at the university level.  I believe this lack is partly to blame for the confusion between trust and faith when it comes to science.

You cannot easily verify this fact by yourself and so you must in the end trust people that have taken to their mission to find these things out.

We can and do trust scientists to do their jobs, but this trust is not akin to faith. To have faith in the bible means you can’t check the references or repeat the experiment.  Even our most basic scientific principles, however, have been published, largely in a public forum.  Want to read about Newton’s or Maxwell’s early physics experiments?  Go to the library and you’ll see all their data and how they intepreted it.  The same goes for any branch of natural or social sciences.

In fact, here is a monthly blog carnival, The Giant’s Shoulders, dedicated to reconnecting with our scientific past.  Look through some of the posts and see how some of our most basic scientific principles used to be falsifiable, hot button issues, needed to be proven with rigor.

jaskaw, in his original post, makes this general point as well, but seems to imply that this type of trust is rational (in contrast to religious faith).  That I’m not so sure about.

Is it rational to trust scientists – who we know have political or personal agendas, who have been known to lie, publish fradulent data, use their connections to stretch the limits of high standard and peer-reviewed publications for personal gain?  We have a real scientific community, and then there’s the one the media presents us with – and it’s not always friendly – that stretches already tenuous results.  The media promises us miracle cures and cancer drugs every other week, but real progress is much slower.

Maybe people are irrational for trusting scientists so much.  99.9% of us will reach for the pill bottle without even a literature review, trusting the work of corporations and government scientists to do the proper vetting.  This is despite the fact that the media plays up reports of ineffective or dangerous drugs, because bad news sells.

Despite all of this, we approach science with a trusting, almost religious-like, blind eye.  We trust in the scientific process and the painfully slow scientific method somehow gives us great results in the end.  But, if we were truly rational about it, maybe we would reject science altogether?  And I say this as a scientist with a first hand account of what the scientific process is all about.


  1. robdashu says:

    The trust in scentists may be misplaced. The trust in science itself – maybe not. Individual scientists may screw around, falsify, etc., but follow-up work by subsequent scientists will usu. debunk bullshit science.

    You think?


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