Monday, January 17, 2011

Can You Learn to Love Uncertainty and Failure?

Most of us see uncertainty and failure as negative things, outcomes to be avoided wherever possible.  Yet, according to an item in The Guardian, learning to accept, even love, uncertainty and failure could be instrumental in the public understanding of climate science.

 Carlo Rovelli, a physicist at the University of Aix-Marseille, emphasised the uselessness of certainty. He said 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."

The physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University agreed.   "  In the public parlance, uncertainty is a bad thing, implying a lack of rigour and predictability. The fact that global warming estimates are uncertain, for example, has been used by many to argue against any action at the present time,"   he said.

"  In fact, however, 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."

The Guardian report was based on an article from Edge which asked what scientific concepts would best improve everybody's cognitive skillset?  158 scientists, artists and philosophers weighed in.  They concluded we need a more discerning public, one capable of grasping the essential value in failure as fundamental to success and uncertainty as far more worthwhile than any supposed certainty.   They want a public able to understand the distinction between "average family income" and the "income of the average family."  What they want seems utopian - a far more sophisticated public awareness.  Unfortunately, public cognition appears to be trending in the opposite direction.

To those who reject the science of global warming as uncertain, they should remember this.   Global warming is a theory, but so is gravity.

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