Science & trust
Science has demonstrated its power and validity through the way it allows us to understand and manipulate the natural world: its accounts are legitimated because they can be tested and are self-evident to anyone prepared to make the effort to understand them: they are not mysterious, transcendental, or restricted to a particular group of people. Above all its findings are not based on faith (belief without reason) – except faith in the ‘uniformity of nature’.
Most people trust scientists, not because scientists harness reason and use highly effective technologies and procedures as they pursue an improved cognitive taxonomy within the scientific domain – but because of the evidence of scientific activity that is all around us. Technology, as applied science, has provided our televisions, smart phones, cars, planes, space ships and armaments – all resulting from evidence accumulated over the history of humanity. Science is profoundly conservative and skeptical: there is no single unambiguous method that characterizes the way it proceeds, there is only a consensus of evidence within the scientific community.
Ultimately, we trust science through the collective intelligence of scientists. The role of reason and evidence are paramount but it does not seem possible to isolate something unique that makes their scientific application different from that used in other disciplines. A scientific conclusion is not derived by logic alone but also through empirical evidence evaluated by both inductive and deductive reasoning: it is peer-reviewed and provides a probabilistic conclusion that can be modified or overturned. What science searches for is accuracy, consistency, broad scope, simplicity and utility: in this it shares much with other disciplines. For all these reasons we must be on our guard when science is hasty, politicized, or profitable – when it is under the influence of ideology or product.
Science, cognition, explanation
The view of science presented by cognitive scientists suggests that scientific reasoning is no different from any other kind of reasoning, it is simply the particular reasoning carried out within the constraints of the scientific domain. Science is the constant improvement of our mental models of ‘reality’ based on constant feedback using technology that has allowed us to extend the range of our senses far beyond that which we are given by nature and far broader in scope than that of any other living organism. Though we can never be fully acquainted with the world’s reality, our human reality, through science and its categories is constantly progressing as demonstrated by its practical outcomes.
So, science then, in a very general sense, is our best explanation of the natural world using cognitive taxonomy (reason as the refinement of our mental categories), and scientific progress as the steady improvement of the match between what our senses (including their extension through technology) tell us about the natural world and the natural world itself. To describe science as providing ‘objective truth’ or ‘mind-independent reality’ is probably over-ambitious. The world does not have our conceptual categories built into it – the categories we use are our most useful ‘human’ categories. How do we know that science is not just wishful thinking or some kind of mythology – how do we really know that science is grounded in something meaningful? Well, science walks the talk – we see it in the predictive power of science as manifest in computers, space travel, biotechnology, and modern medicine. Our survival as a species has depended, in part, on our science, so we cannot be doing too badly.
Limitations of science
The fact that science has overtaken many questions in philosophy might suggest that its scope is boundless, that it will eventually fill in all the unknown gaps in our knowledge. Areas traditionally placed beyond the reach of science include: maths and logic (the a priori formal disciplines that Hume referred to as ‘relations of ideas’); evaluative questions posed by epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics; interpretive questions in the humanities; and metaphysical assumptions of such generality that science can only get a foothold by depending on them. For example, that there is a real world independent of what we might happen to believe, and that we can sense this world and form conjectures about it. 
Science is sometimes characterized as the ultimate form of skepticism, doubting all claims about the material world unless thoroughly and rigorously tested and proved – but many people are skeptical about science itself. Perhaps climate science is ‘rigged’ and maybe the entire scientific enterprise is flawed: after all isn’t it science that has given us nuclear bombs, the environmental degradation resulting from modern technology, and the steady march into an artificial or virtual world that is taking us further and further away from our natural lifestyles and origins? People like this do not ‘believe’ in science. But scientists themselves trust their findings because they do not think of science as ‘belief’; it is much more than that. Belief is the domain of faith: it is believing in something without good reason . . . or, at least, without demonstrable evidence.
Science is falsifiable. This corrigibility of scientific knowledge (openness to reform based on new evidence) is a potential source of both skepticism and humility: there is always room for doubt and improvement. In contrast, religion tends to bring certitude in the absence of evidence.
Science & order
Science investigates the existence of order in the universe. Where there is order there are reasons for that order. By providing reasons (as explanations) we are making the world intelligible. Science seeks the best reasons by minimizing human interest and influence in the interpretation of the world. Science does this by finding the circumstances (causes) under which other circumstances (effects) follow in a regular or predictable way. Reasons are closly related conceptually to purpose.
Science uses both inductive and deductive reasoning combined with experiment and observation to constantly refine the categories used within its domain – the names, principles, descriptions, laws, definitions, theories, laws etc. It is therefore the application of the most effective reasoning, practices, and instrumentation that we can muster all shared by publication and communication across the community of scientists in an attempt to understanding the world.
In the 19th century science was perceived as the mapping reality. Advances were achieved by discriminating nature’s pieces and then exploring their relationships, gradually heading towards a complete picture of the entire edifice of nature: it was like fitting together the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle as facts were read off the world. Scientific knowledge seemed objective, cumulative, and final. But in the 20th century it became clear that humans were not like detached observers discovering, as it were, the thoughts in the mind of god at the Creation. Instead, scientific knowledge is intimately bound up in the process of observation and interpretation. There can be no privileged perspective, only a human perspective: no incorrigible facts, and no absolute truth, only a set of increasingly effective theories.
Science has facilitated the construction of sophisticated scientific instruments that have greatly extended the human biological senses to give insight into the structure and process of matter. Technological advance is cumulative and progressive while theoretical advance, though building on knowledge of the past, can entail the reconfiguration of ideas.
Science is continuous with other methods of enquiry: there is no distinct ‘scientific method’ that establishes a clear demarcation between science and other domains of knowledge. The family of activities that fall under the rubric ‘science’ is now highly diverse: it uses many special tools that include scientific instruments, mathematics, logic, and a critical community of practitioners who monitor its procedures and publications.
Over the last two or three decades our view of science has changed. We have moved from viewing science as a seeker of truth and the ultimate reality of the world to regading it as a more instrumental or pragmatic endeavour. Science does not give us truth in the sense of absolute or ultimate knowledge and in this sense it is fallible. It does build on the knowledge of the past, though not in a simple process of accretion, and it is a system of knowledge. Above all it can be corrected – it is corrigible – and therefore open to endless refinement.
Central to the entire scientific process is our innate capacity for conscious self-correction, our reason. Through reason we can envisage possible futures and their consequences. This does not mean that we will choose futures that are desirable but it means that we have the capacity to do so.
The elegant science on which modern technology is built, the great edifice of explanation, testing, and description, did not come easily. The laws, patterns, principles and mathematics of nature on which our society rests are not self-evident – their power and secrets have been the result of a major investment of human thought and effort.
Although we might not agree with the way that scientific knowledge is applied, the progressive increase in scientific knowledge and resultant technology through human history appears beyond dispute. This strength of science is a constant reminder, even in the sphere of human affairs, to base our policies and action as much as possible on the empirical record, trying to avoid the temptation to moralise, criticise, or base policy decisions on our own particular ideology or grand narrative. Nowhere could this be more important than in the scientific foundations that underpin our future sustainability in which ideological stakes are seen as high for all stakeholders.
In humans ‘self-correction’ now depends on self-conscious and purposive actions based on reason and rationality within a cultural context. Today those humans likely to survive and reproduce are those that survive within an artificial cultural environment; culture has become more important than nature. Science is simply one aspect of the constant refinement of the ever-increasing number of categories we use to understand, measure and manage our surroundings – it is a product of the reason that can be seen in the process of ‘self-correction’ that has been with us since the first replicating molecules.
Science is a social practice that involves a community of experts with research programs that have established sophisticated evidence-based theories that can make reliable predictions. This is a present-day characterization of the emergence of science out of natural philosophy during the Scientific Revolution. But closer to the core of science is the awareness of our capacity to employ unfettered reason and this awareness came to us from the ancients. The capacity for mental self-correction is a biological adaptation translated into the mental realm. Science is one special manifestation of the human capacity for self-correction that evolved mindlessly and with the mindless goal of human flourishing and happiness.