A Matter of Uncertainty

I’ll be the first to admit that I absolutely adore controversy—just love it.  I’m fascinated by political debates and scientific disputes can keep me spellbound for hours.  There’s something intriguing about the way that the proponents of either side maintain their points using both scientific and cultural elements and I always like hearing both sides of the argument regardless of what my own stance on the matter is.  Such debates rarely manage to sway my own opinions on controversial issues, but I find it interesting that opposing sides can both manage to sound correct based on how the facts are picked and presented.

My very latest obsession is the controversy surrounding climate change and the other day, while mindlessly perusing internet articles on the topic, I came across an interesting line: “politicians and activists tend to speak in black and white, while most scientists speak in shades of gray and temper their complex findings in degrees of uncertainty.”  The quote was in an article from the Chicago Tribune discussing the conflicting claims about global warming but I think the statement is accurate for all aspects of science in our society.  The scientific community has a deep mistrust of “absolute certainty.”  If a scientific report was published stating that the claims it made were one hundred percent guaranteed accurate it would absolutely be met with the ridicule it deserved.  In science there is no such thing as absolute certainty, in fact there are multiple mathematical models that scientists can use to determine exactly how uncertain they really are.

This all sounds well and good but the problem arises from the fact that the scientific definition of uncertainty is very different from the public definition of uncertainty.  This is understandable—if I’m crossing a bridge or taking an antibiotic I want the science behind these things to be extremely sure of itself.  And it is. To a point.  Although nothing in science is absolutely certain, there is a degree of certainty to which scientific findings can be accepted as fact.  Science lends itself to its own public bastardization however by truthfully acknowledging that it can never be completely certain.

This is stunningly contrasted by politicians and activists who claim to be arguing their beliefs with absolute truth.  Nobody would find a presidential candidate very appealing if all of his speeches were full of 75% certain’s and not sure’s, so adamant (although sometimes unfounded) belief is almost necessary in politics and other advocacy groups.  This often causes problems for science when its opposers use its inherent uncertainty as defamation of its findings.  This is unavoidable if science wishes to continue to present itself in a truthful and unbiased manner, however the public needs to realize that uncertainty is a part of the scientific process and it is the means by which science is able to catch and correct its own mistakes in order to continually keep moving forward.

One thought on “A Matter of Uncertainty

  1. great discussion! I think you’re totally right–to paraphrase, that certainty is different for scientists and the general public, and that the general public then looks at scientific findings that present themselves as “uncertain” as if they are “unsubstantiated.” This is a tricky problem to solve, though, because the pubic idea of certainty (at least from my perspective) seems kind of… let’s go with “uninformed.”

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