Scientific uncertainty is an accepted and important component of scientific research. It could be argued that it is an essential factor in the drive for research. We research because we don’t know everything. The results of that research then have to be assessed for validity and scientists make an estimate about how confident they are in the picture revealed. Their level of confidence in the picture depends on the level of uncertainty in the data.
But is this how uncertainty is perceived in the community? Does the general public regard uncertainty as deficiency? When making public policy, is uncertainty worrying and a reason to be cynical about scientific data?
What does the choice of wording and language in the following two statements indicate about the authors belief systems?
It is also clear that some science is more certain than other science, and the level of uncertainty may vary even within one issue. David Stainforth speaks below about the topical issue of climate change. He maintains that there is some data on climate change that the world of science is very certain of and in which there is a great deal of confidence.
Marlys H. Witte was a professor of surgery at a university in Arizona. She proposed teaching a class called “Introduction to Medical and Other Ignorance” in the mid 1980’s. She wanted students to work on interesting ambiguities. Her idea was not well received.
Einstein was skeptical about the value of knowledge and Voltaire about the value of certainty.
Jamie Holmes authored an article for the New York Times in which he made the following claim:
“Presenting ignorance as less extensive than it is, knowledge as more solid and more stable, and discovery as neater also leads students to misunderstand the interplay between answers and question.
People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.”
You can read his New York article here : The Case for Teaching Ignorance
So what does this mean for you as students of science? Does it mean that teachers should engage with the subject matter in a more tentative fashion? Should they be less sure that they have all the answers to your questions? Should you view your own ignorance about your subject as cause for celebration? Will this ignorance allow you to explore curiously? Should the work of educators be more about ignorance and uncertainty and less about certainty in what we know?
Stating uncertainties in scientific data that you collect is one way for you to communicate the level of confidence you have in your data based on the precision of the method you chose. At least now though you can celebrate that uncertainty and rather than perceive is as a deficiency, embrace its power to keep you asking questions!
“Scientific uncertainty and global warming.” NAGT. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Aug. 2015.
Website article: SENSE ABOUT SCIENCE MAKING SENSE OF UNCERTAINTY Why uncertainty is part of science’