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Science in society – politics, development and social justice.

Truth, uncertainty and belief – Edge Magazine’s big question of 2011

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The days of the New Year drift by; I tick off one more birthday in my ever dwindling years before I succumb to the cold embrace of the grave; February trundles into sight with the horrors of Valentine’s Day. It is therefore time to dive head first once more into the world of all things sciencey to dredge up a tasty morsel or two.

Not two days ago your tragically aged author dids’t converse mightily for over an hour with his long suffering girlfriend about science and its place in the world. An anthropologist (don’t hold it against her), said girlfriend offered many an interesting point on the nature of belief, the arrogance of science as a discipline and the faith that is put in science by lay individuals. Following this intellectual contretemps I did retire to lick my wounds and it is with surprise and satisfaction that over my morning victuals I open my Saturday Guardian to see the very point I set as a foundation for my defence against the marauding social scientist being held aloft by some estimable men of science.

Online magazine The Edge has posted its big question for 2011: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” Over 150 learned types have answered, submitting brief essays explaining their reasoning. The physicist Carlo Rovelli chose The Uselessness of Certainty, his colleague from the States Lawrence Krauss chose Uncertainty and Neil Gershenfeld, the director of MIT’s Centre for Bits and Atoms, chose Truth is a Model.

If you take these together you can see a theme that is of paramount importance in this the first year of a new decade. As policy more frequently is being formed on evidence provided by Professor A Scientist it is essential that the general public appreciate the limitations and therefore the power of scientific research. Policy should incorporate evidence generated by science when necessary but it cannot rely solely on the lab. It would be like getting a thousand monkeys to build your house; messy and noisy.

A great and alas fictional man, President Josiah Bartlet, said: “Every once in a while there is a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong but those days almost always end with a body count.” As Lawrence Krauss says: “In the public parlance, uncertainty is a bad thing, implying lack of rigor and predictability…In fact, however, uncertainty is a central component of what make science successful.” A lack of certainty does not equate to a lack of validity. The whole purpose of evaluating results is to understand the varying degree of uncertainty that they carry. Therefore you can apply the appropriate strength to results and conclusions. There are no scientifically proven facts; there are hypotheses that are tested, or models that are tested as Neil Gershenfeld would have it. The results are analysed and evaluated. Conclusions are formed. At no point along the way will anyone stand up and say something is a certainty. They might say they believe it to be a certainty but belief is an operative word like no other. The danger comes when people take that belief to be (forgive me) gospel and the matter at hand is thought to be settled.

The joy of science is that there are no absolute truths; there is no straight answer with total certainty. In each of these three essays the authors strike at the very heart of this. You cannot be certain about anything. You always have a degree of uncertainty and quantifying that uncertainty enables you to make decisions. Furthermore it is within that uncertainty comes the impetus that drives research, which stirs the great gumbo of thoughts and ideas into action; giving them direction and purpose. By questioning you remain open to expanding your knowledge; taking something for granted shuts off your brain forever.

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Written by nascenthack

January 16, 2011 at 5:48 pm

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