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Scientific facts are not 100% certain. So what?

Science affects everyone. Generally, people want to trust what scientists tell them and they support science. Nevertheless, groups, such as climate-change deniers, tobacco industry employees, and others, find fertile ground for their obfuscatory messages in the public’s lack of understanding of science. While the entrenched economic, political, or social interests that feed the various controversies are beyond our control, we scientists could make a difference by clarifying what we’re doing.

I think that people are confused by what scientists say. Indeed, on the face of it, scientists often talk in riddles, not to say nonsense. Consider that any thoughtful scientist will acknowledge that no scientific fact can be established as being 100% certifiably true. Then, a minute later, that same person will turn around and solemnly declare that anthropogenic (man-made) global climate change is unquestionably a fact. It’s well underway and an increasing danger to us all. No wonder the public doesn’t know what to believe.

Why don’t scientists do a better job of communicating with non-scientists? I suspect that many of us just don’t have good answers to the questions about the nature of science that we’re sometimes asked. Our education is packed with narrowly-focused, required courses. Our mentors are harried and results-oriented, with little time for, or even frank antipathy to, larger philosophical topics. When I surveyed hundreds of members of biological societies, I was surprised to find that 68% of us had almost no formal training in the scientific method or scientific thinking and reasoning. As a group, we devote even less attention to topics that range beyond our areas of expertise.

Let’s look at the paradox alluded to above: how can we square the tenet that scientific facts cannot be established to be true, with the reality that scientists frequently behave as if their facts were true?

One solution comes from realizing that science is not a unified endeavor.  In particular there is a gulf between the ultimate goals of basic (or pure) and applied science. Basic science seeks knowledge for its own sake, and it is uncompromising: nothing less than a complete explanation of every aspect of nature—everything, everywhere, and for all time—will satisfy it. An unattainable objective, obviously, but that’s the way it is. And it is no more or less foolhardy than pursuing perfection in other aspects of life, as many artists, athletes, mathematicians, etc., normally do. The context of basic science is where we have to keep the dictum of “no 100% true facts” firmly in mind.

What about our attitudes towards climate change? First off, this is an applied science problem, and we can identify applied science problems without knowing all of the details that basic science is seeking. Applied science pursues practicable outcomes, not an abstract ideal of all-encompassing certainty. It relies on the best information currently available and it accepts that the information must be incomplete at some level. There is nothing slipshod or objectionable about depending on incomplete knowledge; we do it all the time.

Take a homely example: the slipperiness of ice. Today, in 2020, science cannot give a complete explanation of why ice is slippery. Early hypotheses about a micro-layer of melted water caused by, e.g. the pressure and friction of a skate blade, were falsified by the finding that ice at temperatures close to absolute zero, where liquid water cannot exist, is still slippery. A full accounting will probably be found deep within a quantum-mechanical framework. Meanwhile, basic physics acknowledges ignorance on this point and keeps on investigating. Applied science can’t and needn’t wait for the answer. If slippery ice is a problem, then put sand or salt on it, mount snow tires on vehicles, melt it, chip it away, or avoid it altogether.

The mere fact that we do not comprehend a problem or its solution in the minutest detail does not preclude sensible action. We don’t need a finished theory of slippery to prevent slipping.

When the sowers of doubt claim that we can’t do anything because not all the data are in, they’re half-correct. All of the basic science data are not in, that’s true. But then all of the basic science data never will be in. It’s wrong to imply that, therefore, applied science is stymied. It’s not. We need to know only whether feasible steps would alleviate a problem and then—guided by the best information we have—take them. For decades, we’ve known that preventative actions can reduce the dangers of climate change, tobacco-smoking, etc. We’ve done little, in part because we’ve been misled by self-interested economic forces that want us to believe that any action must wait for total understanding. Appreciation of the complex nature of science can keep us from being fooled again.

Featured image credits: Jacqueline Godany via Unsplash

Recent Comments

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  2. Mr. Anthony Tamburro

    To be considered a science the body of knowledge must be capable of being falsified, therefore 100% true is impossible. Scientific questioning of any theory must always seek to answer if there are statements about the theory can they be falsified. If not then they can be added to the body of knowledge.

  3. Paul Verbeek

    In most cases the issue is not about the difference between 99 and 100 % certainty but rather the news that appears to show most scientific papers are false. A proper discussion of the work of John Ioannidis might absolve catch-all « economic forces » of some of the fault.

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