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Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

Jail for Ignorance

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Insurance companies and casinos are among the richest industries in the world. Televised sporting events typically capture the largest audiences and are the most lucrative programing. What is common to each of these highly profitable industries is uncertainty. We insure against rare but unpredictable events, we gamble for the thrill of coming out on top against the odds, and who would watch or attend a sporting event when the outcome was already known (think of all those “spoil alerts” during the Olympics).

So why do we have such a hard time understanding that science is not a perfect prediction machine, that it doesn’t know everything, that it traffics in uncertainty and ignorance – and that this is precisely what makes it powerful? Science remains our best idea about how very complicated things work, but it is never satisfied with the current knowledge. In science revision is a victory, not a reluctant admission that we might have been wrong.

Why has science turned its encyclopedic face to the public, showing off all the shiny facts and hiding the mysteries and the unknowns that still make up the bulk of the venture? The reasons lie at the center of the recent miscarriage of justice in Italy over the failure of geologists to be properly alarmist about the possibility of an earthquake.

To be willing to say “I don’t know” into a face full of microphones and the demands from a political officer who you know also controls funding for scientific work – this takes courage. And from the transcripts, this is precisely what the Italian scientists said. It was the interpretation by politicians and the media that led to the misunderstanding that these scientists predicted the unlikely possibility of an earthquake with any more surety than they could have predicted its occurrence.

It is correct and useful to consult scientists on matters of the natural world, but it is childish to believe that they should make pronouncements of certainty. Science in many areas remains unsettled, incomplete, unfinished – but that does not make it unsound or unreliable. Science is correct, up to where it doesn’t know, and then it is a work in progress. But that work in progress is also more than just speculation; it is educated guesses, its conscientious probing, it is deep thinking and endless experiments. It is valuable even for what it doesn’t know.

The famous physicist Erwin Schrodinger noted that, “In any honest search for the truth one has to abide by ignorance for an unknown period.” It is up to an educated public (and therefore to a public education system) to recognize the boundaries of absolute knowledge and to accept uncertainty in science as they do in other parts of their life. Not only to accept it, but to welcome it as the source of new ideas and a continued engagement with our still incompletely known world.

Holding scientists accountable is not wrong. But what should they be accountable for? Being honest about the bounds of knowledge, being forthright about what is or can be known, telling us what they do know – but also what they don’t know. It makes no sense to hold them accountable for predicting something that is inherently unpredictable. Not only is this wrong, it exposes a foolish view of the world that is not befitting the citizen of a modern technological democracy. To believe in certainty is superstition.

Related at Scientific American:

April 6, 2009: The L´Aquila Earthquake

The L’Aquila Verdict: A Judgment Not against Science, but against a Failure of Science Communication

Italian scientists convicted over earthquake warning

Italian Scientists Sentenced to 6 Years for Earthquake Statements

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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