I was interested – and pleased – to read an article in this weekend’s Guardian entitled, “We must learn to love uncertainty and failure, say leading thinkers“.

The article focused on a feature in the web magazine Edge which invited scientists, philosophers and artists to submit their ideas and thinkings in response to a major question of the moment. This year the question was, “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

Being comfortable with uncertainty, knowing the limits of what science can tell us, and understanding the worth of failure were all suggested to be valuable tools to improve people’s lives. As part of this, many pointed out that the public often misunderstands the scientific process and the nature of scientific doubt.

One who responded was Carlo Rovelli, a physicist at the University of Aix-Marseille. He emphasised the uselessness of certainty adding that the idea of something being “scientifically proven” was practically an oxymoron and that the very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt.

“A good scientist is never ‘certain’. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain: because the good scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better elements of evidence, or novel arguments emerge. Therefore certainty is not only something of no use, but is in fact damaging, if we value reliability.”

Another was the physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University. He added:

“In the public parlance, uncertainty is a bad thing, implying a lack of rigour and predictability…uncertainty is a central component of what makes science successful. Being able to quantify uncertainty, and incorporate it into models, is what makes science quantitative, rather than qualitative. Indeed, no number, no measurement, no observable in science is exact. Quoting numbers without attaching an uncertainty to them implies they have, in essence, no meaning.”

Finally, Neil Gershenfeld a director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wanted everyone to know that “truth” is just a model:

“The most common misunderstanding about science is that scientists seek and find truth. They don’t – they make and test models”

I wrote about the uncertainty of science a couple of years ago in a post entitled, “Don’t believe the [science] hype…“. In it, I wrote:

In more technical terms, what I was trying to get across was the idea of ‘argument from ignorance’ or argumentum ad ignorantiam (“appeal to ignorance”) as it is also known. Here it is claimed that something is true only because it has not been proven false or, vice versa, false because it has not been proven true.

And this is my criticism of many within the scientific community because they are happy to allow people – the great unwashed like you and I – to proceed as if a given theory…were definitively true. It’s not.

How pleased am I that my thinking from 2008 is one of the big ideas put forward to improve people’s lives this year…!!! Cutting edge…as ever !!!


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