As I put it at a blogging panel last fall, “in science, it is normative to be not sure.” It wasn’t my most eloquent moment, but at least AAAS’ president-elect Alice Huang agrees with me that one of the biggest challenges to public science literacy is understanding the contingent nature of scientific “truth”.
But probably the most difficult concept to get across to nonscientists is that we look at data and then use probabilities to judge those data. The public wants an absolute black-and-white answer. We may look at something that is 80 percent likely as being good enough to base decisions on.
We’d like absolute answers, but we realize that sometimes decisions must be made with partial data or some uncertainties. And … as we collect more data, what we thought of as truth might change.
If we can be patient and explain this to nonscientists — how we are seeking truth with the best tools available — they are less likely to be negative or skeptical of our conclusions.(source)
Of course we need better science education to address this. But in the meantime, if I can make a request of my fellow scientists, especially those influencing policy, don’t oversell your work. A public led to think there is certainty on a scientific issue when there isn’t will feel betrayed when the scientific consensus evolves. And a public who doesn’t grasp how dissent and uncertainty are part of the normal scientific dialogue is more likely to give credence to pseudoscientific views promulgated by outliers with no real credibility.
During the recent Origins Symposium at ASU, which aired on NPR’s Science Friday two weeks ago, one of the panelists (I think it was Lawrence Krauss) said:
We tend to sometimes hype things too much, and we have to beware. We’ve got to be careful about saying what is likely to happen. We want to promote things – after all the Large Hadron Collider costs a lot of money, and we try to convince people to spend money to do something. And we often like to say it’s going to recreate the early universe. . . and sometimes that comes back to bite us. . . I think it’s very important that scientists try of course to get people interested in what we’re doing, but not overhype the situation, because it’s always bad. And in fact, it’s exactly that. If we say we’re guaranteed to discover all these new particles in the LHC, and we see nothing, how are we supposed to come back later and say, ‘you know, that was what we really wanted.’
Exactly! Although another panelist (I think it was Brian Greene) then noted that sometimes overhyping things – for example, asking whether the LHC will create a black hole – sometimes opens up an opportunity to convey accurate information. But that’s a risky strategy. Listen to the entire interesting discussion here.
A failure to understand the role of uncertainty and evidence in science may be why a lot of people espouse the views criticized in this video, popularized lately on Pharyngula:
I’d be showing that video in my philosophy of science course, if I were still teaching.