We Must Learn to Love Uncertainty and Failure, Say Leading Thinkers

uncertaintyAlok Jha writing at the Guardian, from 2011:

Being comfortable with uncertainty, knowing the limits of what science can tell us, and understanding the worth of failure are all valuable tools that would improve people’s lives, according to some of the world’s leading thinkers.

The ideas were submitted as part of an annual exercise by the web magazine Edge, which invites scientists, philosophers and artists to opine on a major question of the moment. This year it was, “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

The magazine called for “shorthand abstractions” – a way of encapsulating an idea or scientific concept into a short description that could be used as a component of bigger questions. The responses were published online today.

Many responses pointed out that the public often misunderstands the scientific process and the nature of scientific doubt. This can fuel public rows over the significance of disagreements between scientists about controversial issues such as climate change and vaccine safety.

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.”

Read more here.

All the answers can be found here.

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  • Adamas Macalz

    This is genuine wisdom, even outside the scientific model…

  • Anarchy Pony

    I learned some time ago that absolute certainty is a fantasy.

    • The Well Dressed Man

      Absolutely. And yet relative certainty can be infinitely precise. How many decimal places would you care for today, sir?

  • jimpliciter

    how can they be so sure?

  • jimpliciter

    “It is better to be honest about uncertainty then to be dishonest about certainty”

    -quote anon.

  • WillChalices

    This is probably a good thing to keep in mind!

  • rhetorics_killer

    It reminds me a Schopenhauer digression once, when he remarks that science is in no way a box for certainty, merely a way to work; that is what it is, science, ‘a way to transmit knowledge,’ nothing more, nothing less. I resent some difficulty to make such a point understandable for a climate-skeptical fellow.

  • The Well Dressed Man

    uncertainty calculations are currently the bane of my existence (3 physics labs a week, summer semester.) foreshadowing of diff equations next year

  • Deteis

    I’ve always learned twice as much from a failure and only half as much from a success.

    Don’t ask how the math works out.

  • emperorreagan

    I’m pro maybe, probably.

  • mannyfurious

    A lot of mental “illness” (perhaps even most) stems from the inability of the individual to accept uncertainty. People who are “well-adjusted” tend to be people who have learned to “go with the flow.” And going with the flow is nothing more than accepting uncertainty and reacting to it in healthy ways.

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