Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Uncertain Science... Uncertain World

Yashaswini's picture

 Uncertain Science... Uncertain World

Uncertainty is the essence of life. We encounter uncertainties every single day in even the most ordinary, uneventful lives. On a smaller, personal scale: Will it rain today? Will the 5:55 train to the airport be delayed? And from a larger perspective: Will there be a drought this year? Will the economy worsen before getting better? As the element of uncertainty is so common, we have subconsciously incorporated it in our daily lives and we routinely make provisions for it. For example, we prepare for a rainy day by carrying an umbrella with us; we take an earlier train if we feel traffic will be delayed during rush hour etc.

This semester, I read an extremely interesting book ‘Uncertain Science... Uncertain World’, that reflected on the nature and presence of uncertainty in every aspect of our lives. The author, Henry N. Pollack draws from his experiences as a professor of geology at the University of Michigan the many misconceptions educated people from all walks of life harbour. He says, “Perhaps at the head of the list of misconceptions is the concept of uncertainty” (Pollack xii). He devotes the rest of the book to addressing uncertainty in our lives and in science; how not to get weighed down by it, but make the best possible use of it, instead.  He says, “...uncertainty puzzles many people, not because they have a hard time accepting that scientists do not have answers to every pressing question. The puzzlement arises when scientists have more than one answer and disagree among themselves” (Pollack xii). He then comments on day-to-day uncertainties and observes that as uncertain events and come and go, we “...move on through life, sometimes preparing for them, but more often just ploughing through them” (Pollack 1).

Just as life is rooted in uncertainty, so is science! Scientific uncertainty is not only widely prevalent, but also widely addressed by natural scientists, engineers, medical researchers, social scientists, philosophers etc. However scientific uncertainty is not accepted with as much ease by the masses. Pollack observes that there is a reluctance “to take actions addressing... science... in the face of similar levels of uncertainties” (Pollack 2) primarily among the people not regularly engaged in science, or in other words, the layman. He attributes this apprehension to the education system that imprints notions of ‘science’ in students’ minds from a very young age. As I gather from my experiences in this course over the semester, science is, in fact very different from what High School makes it out to be. As I’ve observed, due to the structure of the education system and rigid curriculums, students develop a different attitude towards science, and fail to “understand” the essence of science from the very beginning. Science is made out to be a monster: something only the highly intellectual can grasp; something not for the masses. But as Rachel Carson, a noted marine biologist and nature writer, said, “The notion that science is something... apart from everyday life is one that I should like to challenge... The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why in everything in our experience”.

Science is conspicuous by its presence and importance in our daily lives, and there is comprised out of nothing out of the ordinary. In a very important sense, we are born as scientists! Pollack elucidates this point of view in his book and says, “They [babies] emerge into a strange world and are curious about everything surrounding them. They look, they touch, they listen, smell, and taste. They explore, experiment, and learn from their mistakes. Then they go to school” (Pollack 17). However, as we enter school, instead of being a continuation of our inherent curiosity and exploration, science is transformed into a recitation of other scientist’s accomplishments. Instead of being stimulated to ask questions, we are made to focus on giving answers; and as a result, we grow up with enough ability to absorb ‘facts’ but without the capacity or the desire to question them. This dependency on facts and emphasis on precise results inhibits us from accepting anything less than absolute Truths and as a result, any sign of uncertainty in science is frowned upon and viewed with skepticism.

However, despite this popular notion, there are, in fact, very few concepts that are free of uncertainty and can be accepted as unquestionably true in the world of science! This is once again exemplified by the “loopy story telling perspective” of science on the Lecture/Discussion Notes for Biology 103 on Serendip. In the scientific process, if the implications of our observations are in sync with our initial hypothesis, we are driven towards making new observations; and if not, we are driven towards forming a new hypothesis, and making a new set of observations. Pollack reflects on this and says, “Truths are simply the survivors of multiple attempts at undercutting... The unending search for weaknesses may reveal inconsistencies that ultimately require revision or rejection of the original concept” (Pollack 10). Thus, science is essentially a process of separating the demonstrably fault from the probably true and we can conclude that uncertainties are inherent to its existence.

In fact, far from being an impediment that stalls science, uncertainty serves as a stimulus to scientific discovery and progress. There are many instances where people have made use of this uncertainty in their quests for knowledge. Uncertainty leads to new observations, which in turn leads to the revision of a previous concept that may suggest new experiments and lead to new observations. In fact, I now believe it is certainty, and not uncertainty, that thwarts scientific progress! A very popular example is one that concerns the human fascination with the physical universe. More than three millennia ago, the Babylonians noted points in the sky that remained fixed with respect to one another, or constellations. The Greeks and Persians made new observations and believed that the Earth was placed at the centre of the universe and had other celestial bodies orbiting it. This view was later represented by Claudius Ptolemy, a second century astronomer, who believed the Earth was “...the exquisite work of God, who created humans on Earth as the centre piece of the universe and everything else as a backdrop” (Pollack 113). Though this view was rooted in philosophical and religious attractiveness, it did not appeal to all. Copernicus found the Ptolemic assertion flawed and later presented his recognition of the central position of the Sun in our solar system. This finding, once again, did not take the position of an absolute Truth. After Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion and Newton’s elaborate mathematical descriptions of his laws, we now are comfortable with the current theory of interplanetary forces of attraction, along with the recognition of the Sun as being the centre of the Solar System. This discovery and advancement would not have been possible had Copernicus not been adamant about his uncertainty regarding the Ptolemic view.  Thus, we see that not only is uncertainty ubiquitous to science, but also vital for stimulating creativity and inspiring new observations that lead to further advancement. The sooner we accept the pervasiveness of scientific uncertainty, the better we will be able to use it to our advantage.

Some people might feel weighed down by this constant emphasis on uncertainty. After all, an inability to have any reassurance about our past or present can be quite unnerving and it is no wonder people feel frustrated and discontent! This lack of control over any aspect of our existence initially caused great discomfort to me. Not only is uncertainty reflected in our past and present endeavours, but also our future ventures! Pollack reflects on this observation and provides us with a series of quotes (predictions) made in the recent past that today seem downright ludicrous! Thomas Watson, the Chairman of IBM, 1943, said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” and Decca Recording  Company, after rejecting The Beatles, said, “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out” (Pollack 173). Little did they know that in under less than a century, there would be a global market for over a billion computers and that The Beatles would have sold over a million albums!

These facts reflect on the unpredictability and uncertainty of life, in general and I wonder if getting a deeper insight into the nature of these uncertainties will help reduce the chances of uncertainty. Can we reduce, if not completely eradicate uncertainty with persistent research and study? Perhaps. But that, too, would require an acceptance of, if not a confrontation with, the existing uncertainties. Only when we acknowledge and embrace the presence of uncertainty, can we use it to our advantage. Science, just like our lives, thrives on uncertainty! For example, the uncertainty of how genetic traits were replicated eventually led to the discovery of the double helix molecular configuration!

Thus, though uncertainty may cause discomfort to some, it is of vital importance to us all and is imperative for the greater good. Instead of getting stuck in a rut when faced with uncertainty, we must make the best possible decisions based on the current level of established certainty. Pollack advocates this as well, and says, “The mantra, “Take no action until we have more answers” is usually a thinly disguised plea for the status quo... Like it or not, we must make decisions in a timely fashion on the basis of information available. While it is true that sometimes haste does make waste, it is also true that doing nothing is often worse” (Pollack 238).

Some people are preoccupied with the fear of uncertainty and this distraction keeps them from taking advantage of the opportunities uncertainty offers. These types of people perceive the glass to be half empty, rather than half full and almost never realize their full potential. Pollack beautifully summarizes the dichotomy surrounding uncertainty in his last chapter, and says, “People that see the glass as half full will be the successful agents of change. They will recognize an opportunity to fill the glass. They will be the ones whom uncertainty will stimulate rather than intimidate. They will be the ones who predict the future by creating it!”







Works Cited


1.       Uncertain Science... Uncertain World  by Henry N. Pollack, Cambridge University Press, 2003


Martin J Sallberg's picture

Recommended science readings.

The big problem with the "scientific community" is that its academic Machiavellism is incompatible with the scientific method. Please check out Pure science Wiki. That is an Internet platform for the real scientific method.

Paul Grobstein's picture

the positive side of uncertainty

"Some people are preoccupied with the fear of uncertainty and this distraction keeps them from taking advantage of the opportunities uncertainty offers."

I like this, a lot.  And, as well, the notion that one might aspire to predicting "the future by creating it."  Uncertainty as the "crack" that gives us a significant ability to shape our own lives, individually and collectively?