Uncertain science, uncertain world

Why do people have a problem accepting and accommodating scientific uncertainty?

Uncertain science, uncertain world

Henry H Pollack Cambridge University Press/£12.99

How should the BSE and foot-and-mouth crises have been dealt with? What could science do in the face of a biochemical attack? Why can’t scientists answer these questions?

Scientific uncertainty is something that many people just cannot understand. For them, science is the study of absolutes and certainties; it deals with the exact. It is this fundamental myth regarding the role of science in our lives that Pollack explodes in this book with clear, engaging authority.

Why do people have a problem accepting and accommodating scientific uncertainty? Pollack believes it is because people’s understanding of science is very poor. In a world of varying shades of grey, the need to categorise everything does not sit easily with science’s true nature.

Uncertainty is what drives scientists and their research forward. According to Pollack it is our desire to know for certain what the future will hold that stops us from working towards solutions for what may happen.

An example of this is the slow response by governments to the problem of global climate change. The paradox that society is unwilling to address global environmental problems — under the pretence that there is not enough scientific certainty to proceed — while investment banks rake in millions based on future uncertainties is analysed here.

Much about science is uncertain, and learning how scientists come to their conclusions in the face of this doubt and uncertainty is something readers are encouraged to use in their own lives.

Niall Firth