Uncertainty spurs scientific progress

EPFL summer series: how science works. Citizens and scientists have two very different ways of reasoning. While citizens find comfort in certainty, scientists need to continually challenge the facts. Is it possible for these two groups to find common ground?
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Research is by nature a dynamic process. Scientists start with an observation, make a hypothesis, test the hypothesis through experiments, analyze the results, and form a conclusion. But more often than not, that conclusion raises new questions, which lead to more observations, new hypotheses, more experiments, and so on.

This capacity to accept uncertainty and use it to move forward is one of the strengths of scientific research. Scientists view uncertainty as a way to measure just how accurately they’re able to describe a phenomenon. By incorporating uncertainty into their research process, they can have greater confidence in the conclusions they draw from an experiment, pilot test or clinical trial, for example. That also helps them identify what variables need to be studied to improve their results. Uncertainty therefore brings a lot of benefits. It also prods scientists through an iterative process, bringing them closer and closer to accurate theories about the world around us.

This issue is explored in detail in the Are you sure? series of podcasts by EPFL’s College of Humanities (CDH). Scientists from CDH discuss how they incorporate doubt and uncertainty into their work. For all of them, this healthy skepticism provides a crucial stimulus for taking their research further and assuaging their doubt – knowing full well that some element of doubt will always remain. It’s a process of trying to reach a target that’s always moving further away.

Geneticist Denis Duboule, one of the podcasters, feels that he’s not on a quest to find the truth, but rather “various elements of truth that, when lined up like dots, indicate a direction and give a clearer picture of what’s going on.” That picture is subsequently tweaked and refined through additional research. Assyr Abdulle, another podcaster and a professor in mathematics, explains that doubt and a margin of error are always present in his research, even though his field is often perceived as one with the clearest right-or-wrong answers. “Actually, creativity is very important in mathematics,” he says. “You start off with confusion about a given problem, then you work it out and get some clarity, but then you take a step back and the confusion returns. The clarity you find inevitably leads to further questions to clarify.” In is podcast, Henrik Ronnow, an expert in quantum magnetics, says that research sits at the frontier between the known and unknown and that the scientists’ job is to do what they can to build up the former. “From that perspective, the question isn’t ‘Are we sure of what we’ve found?’ but rather, ‘What do we still not know?’” he says. “Thinking about what you don’t know is a much more interesting approach. You’ll never be able to prove that a given theory is right with 100% certainty, but you can prove that a theory is false. As scientists, what we can say is: ‘My findings describe the results of experiments that are currently possible to carry out.’”

A communications challenge

This constant uncertainty in the research process is one of the things that makes communicating science to the general public so challenging. Citizens need facts to be stable in order to trust them. But scientific knowledge evolves constantly. It’s perfectly normal for scientists to express reservations about their judgments and opinions, to wait until a hypothesis has been thoroughly tested before sharing it, and to be hesitant about drawing firm conclusions. The scientific community slowly builds a consensus as the findings are accepted by the vast majority of its members. Knowledge about the world around us grows steadily as evidence is accumulated.

Part of the difficultly that citizens have in understanding science could also come from the channel used to communicate it. Generalist newspapers are an important ally in scientific communications. But because journalists face tight deadlines and space constraints, they have to focus on simple, attention-grabbing facts. Scientists generally don’t prefer this pared-down approach, because they feel it’s important to explain the different and complicated aspects of a problem. Oversimplifying, or presenting something as true or false, goes against the methodical approach and uncertainty inherent in the research process. It could even distort the main message of a scientist’s research.

A second difficulty arises from the tendency some scientists have to mistakenly believe that if citizens don’t accept a research conclusion, it’s because they lack the scientific knowledge. These scientists therefore believe that the solution is to present citizens with a list of facts. However, that overlooks the many other factors involved in whether citizens accept new discoveries and trust the scientific community; these factors include education level, social and economic background, and personal and religious beliefs, to name a few. If citizens are called on to accept the intricacies of the research process, then scientists should seek to understand the wide range of viewpoints and perspectives held by the citizens they’re trying to reach.

Finding common ground

What can help bridge the communications gap? First, it is important to explain concepts and present data in a language citizens can understand. “It’s not an easy task,” says Ursula Oesterle, EPFL’s Vice President for Innovation. “Scientists need to check whether their statements are simple and easy to grasp, yet accurate and based on proven facts.” According to Oesterle, one idea could be to help scientists translate their discoveries into key messages that can be grasped easily and have a higher chance of being well received.

That’s essentially what scientific journalists do. Their work can be combined with initiatives to increase citizens’ trust in and understanding of how science works, and with programs to train scientists on how their countries’ political institutions function (along the lines of the Franxini Project by think tank Reatch). Through enhanced communication and a concerted effort, the citizen and scientific communities can achieve greater openness and transparency, as well as a better grasp of how the other group operates.

COVID-19 and climate change have shifted the landscape

The relationship between science and society is far from static. It shifts in response to the emerging challenges that researchers must tackle. For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted people to think about the role that scientists and scientific research should have in discussions on societal issues*. The response to COVID-19 showed that when scientists are able to work closely with policymakers and are given the necessary financial and human resources, they can rapidly find solutions to urgent problems.

What about climate change? How should public, social and economic policy respond to the alarm bells that scientists are ringing with growing urgency?**The magnitude of climate change, the many different forms that its effects could take, its extremely long time horizon, and the fact that it becomes irreversible once certain thresholds are reached, are confronting society with an unprecedented problem and challenging our traditional decision-making processes.

“The need to act urgently in response to climate change is there, but unlike with the pandemic, we don’t feel that need as strongly in our day-to-day lives,” says Michael Lehning, a professor at EPFL’s Laboratory of Cryospheric Sciences. “In our minds and perceptions as human beings, the climate doesn’t appear to be changing, or perhaps only very slowly. But in reality, the change is occurring at an extremely rapid pace in the timescale of our planet’s entire history. It’s counter-intuitive, which makes it hard to impart a sense of urgency to either citizens or policymakers. Under the impression of some extreme weather or natural hazard events, the urgency may be portrayed by media and perceived by a part of the population, but quickly vanishes again from our daily lives”.

While scientists are unequivocal that climate change is real and being driven by human activity, many laypeople remain unconvinced, due in part to the overly abstract nature of scientific discourse.

Leaving room for doubt

At the end of the day, it’s all about acting prudently: taking the right precautions early on based on identified risks, regardless of whether there may be a margin of error or whether the danger could potentially be misperceived. With the pandemic, and – on a larger scale, from the perspective of human life – climate change, we are perhaps entering into a new era, one in which social, political, and economic decisions are made increasingly with a view to acting prudently. Especially since the consensus among members of the scientific community is broad. Chemist Wendy Queen, one of the Are you sure? podcasters and an expert in environmental issues, believes that the best way to build citizens’ faith in science – or at least to allay their doubts – is to address issues from many different perspectives and backgrounds and provide a range of solutions, based on a cross-disciplinary, collaborative approach.

Nietzsche warned us: “Not doubt, but certainty is what drives one insane.” Dorian Astor, a philosopher and expert in German studies (and Nietzsche in particular) speaking on a France Culture radio broadcast in 2019***, added that: “Certainty is unquestionably the biggest danger to human reasoning.” Is that maybe because certainty is simply impossible to obtain? In wanting scientists to make assertions and conclusions with 100% confidence, are we perhaps on the wrong track? We mustn’t forget that science – even with its inherent uncertainty – is still the one field whose ultimate goal is to better understand the reality of the world around us.