Scientific method: Tales of the unexpected

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Stuart Firestein relishes Helga Nowotny's study of uncertainty in science and society.

The Cunning of Uncertainty

Helga Nowotny Polity: 2015. ISBN: 9780745687612

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For scientists, uncertainty is a norm. Experiments begin with uncertainty (why else do them?), and even when they are 'successful', the results contain only a range of certainty and a range of confidence about that certainty. Yet in the world outside the laboratory, uncertainty is perceived as negative — not a data point, but a failing, effectively no better than not knowing.

Social scientist Helga Nowotny, former president of the European Research Council, has written The Cunning of Uncertainty, a tour of the phenomenon and its value — to the individual researcher, to the infrastructure of research and to society. Coping with uncertainty, Nowotny declares, must become a collective achievement. Otherwise, the scientific community risks becoming an elite, with all the suspicion and mistrust that that engenders.

“Treating science as a 'fact tract' to be memorized produces a populace that believes science is about answers, rather than questions.”

As Nowotny shows in numerous examples from the social sciences, historical literature and current media, society's misunderstanding of uncertainty has already led to confusion, distortion and politicization of science (in the debates on tobacco and on climate change, for instance). Billions of dollars of public and private money are poured into research, largely on the false assumption that science provides cold, hard, immutable facts. This attitude is reinforced by an educational system that treats science as an immense 'fact tract' to be memorized (and then largely forgotten), producing a populace that believes science is about answers, rather than questions.

Nowotny deserves high praise for bringing a discussion of the uncertainty around uncertainty into the public arena. She does so with remarkable aplomb given the subject's slipperiness. She challenges scientists to take a leading role in setting straight the distorted views of certainty in science, and then spreading the word to educational and political policymakers.

I was puzzled at first by Nowotny's use of “cunning”, a term denoting a worrisome craftiness — cleverness mixed with predatory wiliness. However, Nowotny has nailed it: uncertainty has a duality. It is a space that allows creativity, but it is fraught with insecurity. Nowotny herself struggles to disentangle uncertainty from the unexpected, the unpredictable, the dangerous. She sometimes fails, but the exercise is instructive. We take too much for granted, she shows, in defining uncertainty; there are many subtleties and layers to it. From antiquity, people used prognosticators and magicians to look into the future; futurologists are still consulted. Yet people insist on 'spoiler alerts' before sports results are announced, or in film or book reviews; and few want to guess, much less know, the exact moment and circumstances of their too-certain deaths. Definitely cunning.

Nowotny examines this tension through historical examples of how policy is set in areas of uncertainty. These are: reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization; stem-cell science; and personalized medicine. With the exception of the last example, these seem like old stories. A discussion of more current and contentious policies, such as genetically modified organisms or nuclear power, might have been more instructive. However, her analyses of big-data programmes (the trumpeted then debunked Google Flu Trends is an excellent example) and nonlinear complex systems (such as finance, energy or pandemics) as gushers of uncertainty and contemporary spaces of innovation make for deep and fruitful reading.

Although she gives us chapter headings like those of a self-help book ('Craving for certainty', 'The odds for tomorrow'), Nowotny refuses to be prescriptive — at least in this volume. Rather, she presents us with many ideas and numerous angles to chew over. My personal favourite is her tracking of public attitudes to risk, from viewing it as both negative and positive to seeing it as an almost completely negative factor that must be reduced. Her ideas about positive risk and why it must be increased offer a refreshing perspective in this compliance-oriented world.

This is, above all, a book of ideas, not a policy manual, even though Nowotny would obviously like to see changes in funding, economic and management policies. She is well-equipped to lead us in this battle; throughout an illustrious academic career, she has served in numerous policymaking positions, for example in the European Science Foundation. And that is perhaps the one thing that I miss in this book: a more personal tour of uncertainty with a traveller who has come up against it in policy, funding, education and research. It is a shame that Nowotny does not occasionally put down the careful scholarly pen and take up the memoirist's.

As a scientist, I am at home with uncertainty. I like that the gathering of knowledge inevitably reveals new and unexpected bits of a vast unknown akin to the dark matter of epistemology. The real cunning of uncertainty lies in how it increases through every attempt to reduce it.

As for certainty, wherever you find it, you can be sure that a demagogue or dictator is nearby. French author and Nobel laureate André Gide advised that we should believe those who seek the truth — and doubt those who claim to have found it. This is one prescription that Nowotny courageously follows.

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