Reality, in no certain terms

While science may seem like an arbiter of hard, certain facts, it's actually much more of a balancing act between evidence and doubt.

 
 Illustration by Kayla Oliver

Illustration by Kayla Oliver

 

Overt Analyser is a monthly column by Chloe Warren that reflects on her experiences as a twenty-something scientist. Chloe is a PhD student in medical genetics at the University of Newcastle and really thinks too much about most things.

While I describe myself as a scientist, I am also, like most other scientists, human. 

I, like everyone else, expect some parts of my life and the world to be somewhat predictable. If I am going to haul myself out of bed at 4AM to catch a 9AM flight, I’d be pretty miffed if the flight didn’t leave until 11AM. If I’ve arranged a meeting in one room, and a key group member goes to another, I wouldn’t be too impressed either. In both of these scenarios, my idea of certainty is disrupted, and I am left disappointed as my priorities are left by the wayside. That space between certainty and disappointment often lays in someone else’s hands. Consequently, certainty and predictability are set as a benchmark for quality. Airlines who frequently run late are unpopular and colleagues who get lost easily are unreliable. So what are scientists who change their minds?

For the most part, scientists who change their minds are perceived as frustrating. One day red wine confers multiple health benefits, the next day it can impede muscle function and repair. One day we should be staying out of the sun to avoid skin cancer, the next we should be getting plenty of UVA in order to protect against cardiovascular disease

In my last column, I pondered the mountain of data and literature scientists deal with as they struggle to contextualise their work. I concluded that the only thing we can do is start somewhere and be comfortable with the notion that we could get proven wrong. So how are the general public supposed to interpret all of these findings made by scientists who can never even be 100% sure of their own conclusions? It doesn’t do much for science PR when even the experts appear so indecisive. This PR problem can be partially blamed on journalists rushing to oversimplify complex stories. But then again, the major reason scientists appear so indecisive is that science is, in essence, an uncertain field.

  The ability to change your mind and travel a different path is a requirement for doing good science.   DennisM2/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

The ability to change your mind and travel a different path is a requirement for doing good science. DennisM2/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

This may seem like a confusing statement to make. Most of us are first introduced to the concept of science at school, where we memorise types of rocks, tables of elements and bits of anatomy. We learn about famous scientists who are famous because they know stuff. In short, we learn facts and we learn that facts are important. But don’t facts imply certainty? In reality, certainty has little to do with the practise of science. As long as new discoveries are made, new methods are developed and new perspectives are formed (ie so long as science is conducted), scientific conclusions are always open for new interpretation.

When it comes to teaching however, it’s difficult to frame science this way. Have you ever tried teaching a 7 year old that everything we think we know about our universe is open for discussion, except for bedtime, vegetables and table manners? In an ideal world, we could teach science like we teach maths – always show your working. We would set tasks which test problem solving skills as opposed to memory. 

In essence, science is problem solving. It’s learning to think for yourself – considering a limited number of factors, using logic, probability, estimation and existing evidence to come to a reasonable conclusion. It’s minimising the risk of being wrong by acquiring evidence; it’s rarely being ‘right’ and it’s never being ‘certain’. 

Unfortunately, as described previously, uncertainty generally aligns itself with distrust and illegitimacy, as far as society’s expectations are concerned. In reality however, there’s so little which is realistically predictable and steadfast about the world we live in. The only thing I personally am 100% confident won’t change are the basic laws of mathematics (only the basic ones, mind you). The one thing we can be sure of is that we can’t be sure of anything. 

  In dealing with uncertainty, scientists could learn something from Buddhism.   Pedro Travassos/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

In dealing with uncertainty, scientists could learn something from Buddhism. Pedro Travassos/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

During my day job, I have become accustomed to regularly feeling confused, uncertain, overwhelmed, and sometimes just plain stupid. Being a scientist means you have to be resilient as plans and predictions go awry. Then again, being an inherently anxious person, flexibility was a skill that took me a long time to acquire. But I’m positive it’s one of the most useful things I’ve learned throughout my training so far. So many parts of our day-to-day experience require us to be somewhat flexible or we’d live our whole lives on the cusp of aneurism (see: flight delays and incompetent co-workers). This attitude rings true with Buddhist philosophy, which teaches the importance of embracing impermanence, as also stated by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “The only thing that is constant is change.”

While being open-minded can not only make life easier (and, arguably, happier), I would also argue that closed-mindedness can be a pretty accurate indicator of ignorance. When asked what it would take to persuade her that climate change was a genuine threat, American Republican politician Marsha Blackburn simply replied, “I don’t think you will see me being persuaded.” For someone to declare that they have already decided what they believe, despite whatever evidence may be presented to them, says a lot about their intellectual capacity and reasoning. When we face the world with absolute certainty, we face the world with ignorance. Yet certainty is still observed as a virtue in a number of fields; as Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted:

 
 

Decisions and conclusions can only be made in the moment, based on the evidence existing in that moment. Hopefully, we are never going to stop acquiring evidence. Unfortunately then, while uncertainty will forever remain at the heart of scientific thinking, some people will always view scientists as an irritating bunch of indecisive over-thinkers. To those in particular who fail to comprehend this impermanent nature of our universe, I am proud to be an irritating and indecisive over-thinker. To everyone else, I implore you to join our ranks.