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Monday, May 07, 2007

Handling Uncertainty

I was cruising through news stories and blogs recently and read a great quote -- "Some people handle uncertainty by being certain." I can't remember the source, but I do remember the context, it was a scientist commenting on how scientists that get emotionally involved in emotional debate hurt the cause of science. Those calling other scientists and researchers bought or deluded create an atmosphere that displays the ambiguities within our knowledge.

I actually think this is a good thing.

In a college class, and frequently within an entire university department, there is seldom open debate. The subjects are taught as if the knowledge being dispensed is beyond challenge and is fully established by rigorous scientific methods.

We give too much respect and credence to folks with lots of degrees and a lab coat. Scientists immersed in bitter feuds backing their opinions with research papers reveal that they are all too human. None are exclusively brilliant, or angry, fraudulent, ethical, etc. -- and all of them will remain very human.

Five or six more years of college, and a few years of teaching and writing does not raise your typical college student beyond questioning. The fact that they reproach and mock each other should make you feel uncomfortable trusting the full weight of your opinion on the skinny reed of their pronouncements. They may say "we welcome questions as that spurs further research," but question their basic assumptions and you will be shouted down.

s an example present arguments from the other side of the climate change or evolution debates to a professor. In most instances they have already settled their mind on one argument or another and will not listen to unfamiliar logic. They are like children covering their ears and shouting "I can't hear you!"

Ben Franklin's general advice is as true for science as it is for other fields: "If you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than intellect."

I was going to give some specific examples; say of medicine where we know of many helpful drugs; but not how they will interact with most other drugs or specific individuals. As soon as I list a few examples there will be a cry from other scientists that state "We are not like that here!" Yes you are, but specifics for all fields are beyond the time alloted me on Earth.

Entrenched dogma and fads exist in the scientific community just as they do in the rest of society. There is a great deal to praise in current science, but it is not a wholly reliable source of unqualified answers. As surely as todays scientists talk of the ignorance and intolerance of their predecessors, so will their descendants talk of them.

"An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: What does happen is that the opponents gradually die out." -- Max Planck

"At some point all of us end up handling uncertainty by being certain," paraphrased Allan Wallace, smug in his certainty.


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