September 2011

Re: “Tantalizing Ambiguity,” by Sheilla Jones

I read with interest the review of William Byers’s tome The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty. While it may be that some executives in government and business seek the false security of certainty in making decisions, I would disagree that this is also true of scientists. Having been trained as a scientist and spending much of my career among them, I would argue that uncertainty is a fact of our scientific life and is a powerful driver in stimulating research. I cannot agree with Sheilla Jones that scientists gravitate to science because they are seeking to satisfy the human need for certainty.

As scientists we recognize uncertainty not only in our observations but also in the hypotheses we construct to make sense of them. We endeavour to reduce these uncertainties but some are irreducible, such as that embedded in the chaos of many natural systems. And, of course, the whole point of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is that there is some unavoidable uncertainty in what we can measure. Uncertainty is simply part of science and indeed of reality. To quote Voltaire: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.”

We are trained to put uncertainty estimates on our results. Properly determining and describing uncertainties is the key to a successful dialogue between scientists and decision makers. Within our own scientific disciplines we have developed satisfactory means of expressing uncertainty. However, these conventions are not universal or necessarily always understood by those who have to make decisions. Indeed, part of the problem identified by Byers can be put down to a lack of understanding of how science is done. It is misleading to suggest, as Jones has done, that science’s proper role is to provide the safety and security of certainty.

I am puzzled by what she means by mathematical certainty. My understanding is that mathematical certainty is not always attainable—at least that is my reading of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. It is certainly folly to look for certainty in the results of models developed by Wall Street bankers, especially if the assumptions are not clearly set out.

For me mathematics is a language, one that we find useful in some quite practical applications such as shopping and making calendars, but for some it can have a beauty of its own. The language of mathematics is essential to much modern physics. Sometimes we have difficulty in translating that mathematics into concepts we can grasp. Examples might include quantum mechanics, relativity and some thermodynamics. But as Bohr said of quantum mechanics—it works. And, I might add, as with all languages there is always some ambiguity.

John M.R. Stone
Ottawa, Ontario

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