Maintaining The Trust In Science
About 100 years ago, a movement formed by scientists, mathematicians and philosophers collectively known as the Vienna Circle and Berlin Circle, propagated the philosophical idea called “logical positivism.” In essence, this idea puts the emphasis on the importance of empirical evidence as the central criterion in verifying knowledge.
This has led, intentionally or otherwise, to an extreme expression of logical positivism known as “scientism.” Scientism, among other things, hold to the belief that in any inquiry, science is the only source of reliable and rational knowledge. This gives the implication that any other forms of knowledge that cannot be empiricised (observed, measured or quantified) are unreliable and therefore, irrational.
No doubt, many thinkers including those in the west have criticised logical positivism and scientism. Even in science and mathematics, there are ideas, concepts and theories which are accepted purely on faith and not based on empirical evidence. One such theory is the Set Theory in mathematics which was developed in the early 20th century which is now widely used by mathematicians.
In explaining the nine axioms of the Set Theory, Hanspeter Fischer, a professor of mathematical science at Ball State University, Indiana, USA wrote that, “Very much like the postulates of geometry, these axioms [of set theory] are accepted on faith. All subsequent theorems, however, must be based on these axioms and the strict rules of logical inference alone.”
The reliance that people have in scientific knowledge in the 20th century remained high as science is seen as a “trusted” body of knowledge. Fast forward to the present time, almost exactly 100 years after the logical positivism movement started in Vienna and Berlin, the pendulum of trust seems to have swung to another extreme.
Science, which was put on a pedestal, is now being challenged by distrust in scientific knowledge. This “war on science” is not something that occurs overnight, but it is made more apparent with the COVID-19 pandemic currently plaguing the world.
The war on science is actually a manifestation of the post-truth era that we are living in today. The Cambridge Dictionary defined “post-truth” as “a situation in which people are more likely to accept an argument based on their emotions and beliefs, rather than one based on facts.” Living in a post-truth era while facing the threat of COVID-19 can lead to dire situations as seen in many parts of the world.
SARS-CoV-2 is a novel Coronavirus only identified at the end of 2019. As such, much is not known about the virus and COVID-19 the disease. A lot of research around the world are being conducted in order to understand the virus and disease better. Considering the novelty of the virus and disease, scientists have actually made relatively good progress, but without a doubt there is still a lot that is not known.
With what little that we do know about the virus and disease, scientists and medical experts have given advice that is thought to be important in keeping infection rates low and manageable. These include social distancing, wearing face masks, looking after hygiene, quarantine those with symptoms and locking down a place when there is an alarming spike in the number of cases.
While these advice are based on data obtained through scientific research, there are efforts by certain quarters to sow doubt on the scientific evidence. This has brought about an unfortunate consequence where science, scientists and scientific institutions, which at one time was held in high standing, are now viewed with distrust.
In the current “war on science,” doubt on scientific evidence are spread by presenting alternative facts. “Alternative facts” is a term coined in 2017 by Kellyanne Conway, a senior advisor to President Donald Trump. When alternative facts clash with scientific findings, and people are inclined to believe alternative facts due to their emotions and beliefs, then this situation poses a significant risk to public health.
This can already be seen in many countries, where infections continue to rise exponentially as people refuse to wear face masks and practice social distancing. Consequences of this war on science in the post-truth era at a time when there is pandemic are very glaring and difficult to ignore. Lives are lost, nations’ economies are in the doldrums and unemployment is on the rise — these are but a few of the long list of consequences.
Scientific knowledge, its process and methodology may not be perfect. However, it is still the best tool that we have in our attempt to understand the natural world, which includes viruses and diseases. The knowledge obtained from science helps to establish guidance for us to handle any disease outbreak and pandemic such as COVID-19.
In Islam, one way in which knowledge can be obtained is through human endeavours by establishing causal relationship based on observations made on the natural world. This in essence is the process of tadabbur which requires mankind to observe the natural world. In Surah al-Ghashiyah verses 18 to 20 for example, it is stated that, “Do they not look at the camels, how they are made? And at the sky, how it is raised high? And at the mountains, how they are fixed firm? And at the earth, how it is spread out?”
These verses in essence propagate the importance of doing research, and this will then lead to the development of scientific knowledge. As such, there is a growing need to ensure that we strike a balance when utilising science. We should not regard science as the be-all and end-all in the knowledge hierarchy, but equally important, we must not ignore scientific findings that are critical in explaining and understanding how things in the natural world work, and how this knowledge can be used to save lives.
Today the trust pendulum may have swung unfavourably towards science and scientists in certain parts of the world, but as Muslims and Malaysians, it is crucial that we maintain the balance so that our decisions are informed, objective and rational.