Absolute Certainty Is Scientific

But only because it’s necessary when dealing with a public taught to distrust science, and read scholarly uncertainty as a vulnerability to be exploited for political gain, not for further evidence-based research.

For the Wall Street Journal, Dan Botkin argues otherwise, claiming that when climate change activists (or scientists in support of the cause) claim a monopoly on the truth, they conspicuously demonstrate their misunderstanding of a process where no fact, truly, can ever be certain or free from the possibility of later amendment.

I felt nostalgic for those times when even the greatest scientific minds admitted limits to what they knew. And when they recognized well that the key to the scientific method is that it is a way of knowing in which you can never completely prove that something is absolutely true. Instead, the important idea about the method is that any statement, to be scientific, must be open to disproof, and a way of knowing how to disprove it exists.

Therefore, “Period, end of story” is something a scientist can say—but it isn’t science.

Granted. But when scientists speak of “certainty” — which they do, sometimes — they’re not speaking in their role as scientists, but in an ex cathedra sense, in which they’ve conspicuously put down the lab notebook, and picked up the microphone to use their particular expertise to influence policy. This is a necessary function in the modern world, but it’s one that’s jeopardized, not enriched, by acknowledging the limits of the scientific method. Policymakers and the voters who elect them crave certainty, which scientists should offer cautiously, and only when a conclusion is sufficiently certain to merit public attention, and require public action. It’s up to wise policymakers to ask the right questions, and wise citizens to understand that science that’s “certain” is only “certain” to a point.

Perhaps this is less than optimal; maybe it would be a better world, and dispel the ivory tower view of the academy, if scientists laid all their cards on the table even when summarizing evolving findings to the public. But scientists have learned the hard way that anything less than a monolithic, unanimous consensus on every point invites suspicion, not curiosity, and actually undermines trust in the process.

Take, for example, evolution, where the use of the word “theory” lets religious demagogues manipulate the public into disregarding empiricism altogether; or where the debate about how evolution occurs — whether gradually, or in puncuated equilibria — balloons, in the hands of creationists, into a debate about whether evolution happens at all. Or, most obviously, “ClimateGate,” where industry-backed hacks took emails evidencing honest scientific dialogue about how to reconcile data with an old model, and twisted them to make it look like global warming science was all some huge conspiracy foisted on America by… evil British scientists, I guess? Because all conservative tropes have to collapse into foreign- or liberal-backed conspiracies? Who knows.

In a world so dominated by special interests, where well-funded corporations sell distorted science to an unsophisticated audience with ads that sound for all the world like parody (YouTube: one, two), the effect of acknowledging scientific doubt in the public eye is hardly salutary. We either need an efficient capital marketplace of ideas — where the truth wins, rather than the best-funded viewpoint — or an approach to scientific messaging that retains its skepticism internally, and remains capable of introspection, but that consistently presents a unified front when dealing with the public. If that means arguing for unscientific notions of “certainty” in the public eye, so be it.


One comment

  1. This is an area in which scientists could benefit from doing more philosophy (though my own prejudices may here be showing). The general public speaks neither the language of science nor the language of philosophy, and, for the most part, scientists don’t speak philosophy and philosophers don’t speak science. (Honestly, the phil mind people are still hung up on Newtonian physics. It’s enough to give one a headache.) Questions about knowledge and certainty are the domain of epistemology; questions about the natural world are the domain of natural philosophy science. Bringing the two together — describing what we know about the world in which we live — is a task that can only be accomplished by someone fluent in both p-values and Humean skepticism, and getting hoi polloi to understand what’s going on requires someone fluent in both of those and in the vulgar vernacular.

    Which is rare. From what I’ve seen of my colleagues on both sides of the science/philosophy divide, it seems like extended training in either discipline inhibits the ability to explain what the hell you’re talking about to people not in your discipline. I’m not sure why this is the case.

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