Does success in science correlate with an acceptance of uncertainty?

By Michael Edmonds 17/11/2013

One of the challenges with science communication is communicating uncertainty, something that is at the core of science but which produces some confusion and frustration for the wider public who prefer definitive answers to life’s questions.

However, this morning as I read the book “Cells to Civilizations – the principles of change that shape life” by Enrico Coen, it occurred to me that in most science texts there is uncertainty – as a author builds an argument he often relies on statements that only become clear later in the argument.

“Cells and Civilizations” is written by a plant molecular geneticist, and his explanations in the first three chapters mainly describe biological processes, often with analogies using art. My background is chemistry, and my knowledge of art is not extensive, so as I read this book I occasionally find myself thinking

“That’s interesting … I’m not quite sure I understand it fully .. but I’ll keep reading until I understand it better”

Even the author early on suggests

“I would encourage readers with little or no scientific background to keep going if they encounter tricky passages, as the key concepts should sink in as they are repeatedly encountered.”

And because it is an engaging book with some fascinating ideas, I continue to read it, and as the author suggests  these initially unclear ideas/examples are starting to make sense.

However, I can’t help but wonder if this need to accept that one may not grasp the full story straightaway (i.e. accepting a level of uncertainty) is what puts some people off science (and quite possibly some other areas of academic study)?


0 Responses to “Does success in science correlate with an acceptance of uncertainty?”

  • 1. Not sure about this 🙂
    2. Can I use the “author early” quote when responding to referees?
    3. My scientific career has been spent sitting in meetings with medics where I have frequent “I don’t understand” moments which I must immediately put into one of the the following categories: (i) I don’t need to understand (ii) I better go and look that up later (iii) this sounds important for the rest of the discussion so I better speak up.