Researchers use uncertainty to express how confident they are in results, or to describe the boundaries of what is known and unknown, but in everyday language uncertainty is heard as ‘unreliable’.
In a new guide, Making Sense of Uncertainty, Sense About Science worked with researchers in climate science, disease modelling, epidemiology, weather forecasting, and natural hazard prediction to explain why we should be relieved when scientists describe the uncertainties in their work. We asked them to tell us why it is that the uncertainty in these areas doesn’t worry them, and to share these insights to help people engage more constructively with debates about uncertainty.
What the researchers told us was that the presence of scientific uncertainty does not mean we know nothing – and that, in fact, we need to embrace uncertainty, especially when trying to understand more about complex systems. Equally, although uncertainty can be abused to undermine evidence, from promoting alternative cancer treatments to suggesting anthropogenic CO2 is not changing the atmosphere, the existence of uncertainty doesn’t mean that anything could be true.
And it’s important to recognize that scientific uncertainty doesn’t necessarily mean that we cannot make decisions. We do often have enough information to take action – operational knowledge. When it comes to making policy, instead of the question that’s often asked, ‘are we certain?’ we would be much better asking ‘do we know enough?’.
You might ask why scientific uncertainty matters for anyone outside a particular field of research, but it affects everyone. If people are discouraged by the very idea of uncertainty, then we miss out on important discussions about the risks and benefits of new treatments, what action to take to mitigate the impact of earthquakes, or how individuals and governments should act in response to sudden changes in temperature or sea level or the latest pandemic flu threat.
Making Sense of Uncertainty moves us on from academic discussions in specific fields to a level of specialized commentary. At Sense About Science, we’ll be continuing to work with researchers around this. Exploring common issues in debates about scientific uncertainty will, we hope, help people who need to talk about it: the researchers who need to talk about their work, and others who have to use and explain scientific uncertainty in the media and for policy-making.
You can download a free electronic copy of the guide at http://www.senseaboutscience.org/resources.php/127/making-sense-of-uncertainty