Uncertainty – typical for scientists, not typical for everyone else

2 Jul

I picked up some materials from Sense about Science when the American Association for the Advancement of Science had their annual meeting in Vancouver. Sense about Science is a London-based organization. Its objective:

We are a charitable trust that equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion.

They recently launched their guide “Making Sense of Uncertainty: Why uncertainty is part of science” at the 8th World Conference of the Science Journalists. I am personally very excited to see this guide. Why is this important?

Making Sense of Uncertainty

Science has typically been conveyed to the public as a body of knowledge and facts. After all, that’s how kids were taught – Newton did this, Einstein studied that, Darwin wrote this. Period. (In the guide, it is called “settled science.”) Unfortunately, this means that most people’s impression of science is that it is factual, instant, complete, and does not involve tens and hundreds of years of study, iteration, and debate. This impression is seriously flawed and misleading. As the products of scientific research become more accessible to everyone, questions start to arise from the public (including policy makers) when 1. seemingly contradicting results came from different scientists, and 2. scientists don’t speak in absolute terms. While this is seen typical from the perspective of scientists, it makes science questionable in the public’s eyes and put suspicion in the science conducted – because this is not the “Science” that we have been learning and teaching.

This guide covers a few important topics – what uncertainty means to scientists, what scientific models are and aren’t, and the implication of uncertainties. It also provides a pretty good collection of examples to help people understand uncertainty.

Why does any of this matter? Until we understand scientific uncertainty, we risk being seduced or confused by misrepresentation and misunderstanding. Without an understanding of uncertainty amongst the public and policymakers alike, scientists will struggle to talk about uncertainty in their research and we will all find it hard to
separate evidence from opinion.

The guide itself is very informative, so I would encourage everyone to take a look, particularly the part about scientific models. However, it feels to me the guide was written by scientists, for scientists and perhaps science journalists (at least that’s my first impression). What I think would have been extremely useful would be if a few members of the general public or perhaps policy makers were involved in writing the guide. There is no clear indication that this was done based on the Contributor page. And I think that is a missed opportunity.

It also started with a little “finger-pointing.”

Put crudely, scientists tend to think science is about things we don’t know fully. Journalists and politicians (and to a large extent, many people) think it is about things we do know, and they’re impatient with ‘maybe’s.

(crudely indeed…)

I am hoping that this guide is the beginning of more conversations with journalists, policy makers, and the general public about what uncertainty means in science. I also hope that this can bring some awareness to the scientists, to recognize that this is a concern and that we have a responsibility to better communicate uncertainty to the public, and to better educate the next generation about what science really is: a process, not just facts.

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3 Responses to “Uncertainty – typical for scientists, not typical for everyone else”

  1. Artem Kaznatcheev July 2, 2013 at 9:24 am #

    I think somebody should write a book (or series of blog posts?) that disguises a post-positivist manifesto as a how-to guide for evaluating scientific claims in the public sphere.

    • Terrific T July 5, 2013 at 7:59 am #

      Haha is that a hint or something?

      • Artem Kaznatcheev July 5, 2013 at 9:03 am #

        I think it was mostly a “note to self”. So many of the great discoveries of the early 20th century can be viewed as a push away from positivism. I would really like to see a book that discusses this is a historic context.

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