Certainty is useless – a scientific concept

Each year John Brockman, the founder EDGE poses a question to a large number of public thinkers. He collects and publishes the answers – firstly on The Edge World Question Center website and then usually in book form. This year the question is:

“The term ‘scientific”is to be understood in a broad sense as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great people in history, or the structure of DNA. A “scientific concept” may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous conceptual tool that may be summed up succinctly (or “in a phrase”) but has broad application to understanding the world.”

It’s a great question – originally posed by Steven Pinker. And the answers from over 150 participants are included. You can read them at your leisure at the question center. Alternatively, download this pdf file, Scientific toolkit, I created (226 pages) to read on your eBook reader.

As an example – here’s a short answer contributed by CARLO ROVELLI, a theoretical physicist and author of The First Scientist: Anaximander and His Legacy“. It’s very relevant to some of the discussions that go on around here:

The Uselessness of Certainty.

There is a widely used notion that does plenty of damage: the notion of “scientifically proven”. Nearly an oxymoron. The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt. Precisely because we keep questioning everything, especially our own premises, we are always ready to improve our knowledge. Therefore a good scientist is never ‘certain’. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain: because the good scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better elements of evidence, or novel arguments emerge. Therefore certainty is not only something of no use, but is in fact damaging, if we value reliability.

Failure to appreciate the value of the lack of certainty is at the origin of much silliness in our society. Are we sure that the Earth is going to keep heating up, if we do not do anything? Are we sure of the details of the current theory of evolution? Are we sure that modern medicine is always a better strategy than traditional ones? No we are not, in none of these cases. But if from this lack of certainty we jump to the conviction that we better not care about global heating, that there is no evolution and the world was created six thousand years ago, or that traditional medicine must be more effective that the modern medicine, well, we are simply stupid. Still, many people do these silly inferences. Because the lack of certainty is perceived as a sign of weakness, instead of being what it is: the first source of our knowledge.

Every knowledge, even the most solid, carries a margin of uncertainty. (I am very sure about my own name … but what if I just hit my head and got momentarily confused?) Knowledge itself is probabilistic in nature, a notion emphasized by some currents of philosophical pragmatism. Better understanding of the meaning of probability, and especially realizing that we never have, nor need, ‘scientifically proven’ facts, but only a sufficiently high degree of probability, in order to take decisions and act, would improve everybody’ conceptual toolkit.

I am still browsing through the answers – but some others I really like are:

Truth is a Model by NEIL GERSHENFELD
Director, MIT Center for Bits and Atoms; Author, FAB

The Rational Unconscious by ALISON GOPNIK
Psychologist, UC, Berkeley; Author, The Philosophical Baby

The Virtues of Negative Results by KEVIN KELLY
Editor-At-Large, Wired; Author, What Technology Wants

The Expanding In-Group by MARCEL KINSBOURNE
Neurologist & Cognitive Neuroscientist, The New School; Coauthor, Children’s Learning and Attention Problems

Uncertainty by LAWRENCE KRAUSS
Physicist, Foundation Professor & Director, Origins Project, Arizona State University; Author, A Universe from Nothing; Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Scienc.

But there are lots more.

Happy browsing!

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One response to “Certainty is useless – a scientific concept

  1. You’re knowledgeable. Many Internet gurus are pure frauds, and the antithesis of science.


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