Several months ago, I wrote a generally favourable review of geophysicist Dr. Henry Pollack’s newest book, A World Without Ice. So when I came across his earlier book, which was about the nature of the scientific process – something that fascinates me – I couldn’t wait to read it.
Uncertain Science, Uncertain World is about uncertainty in science, as you may have guessed from the title, and it is absolutely fantastic. If you’re pressed for time, just read the first three chapters – they’re the best. They discuss how the public’s tendency to “equate science with certainty, rather than uncertainty” has been fed by the American school system and the mass media, and what the consequences are.
He talks about how everyone is born a scientist, how children observe the world around them with a fierce curiosity, instinctively exploring and experimenting. Then they go to school, and decide that science is boring. In elementary school, and to some extent in high school, science is presented as a memorization of facts and theories, rather than an exploration of the boundaries of and barriers to our knowledge, which is what scientists actually study. “Science is presented as answers rather than questions,” Pollack writes.
I couldn’t agree more. I wasn’t always the self-professed science addict that I am now. Until I reached high school, I thought that science was dry and boring, and until I started researching climate change, I didn’t see the creativity and problem-solving in it. In science class you memorize facts and do calculations, so it’s very hard for students to realize how cool it is to discover facts and derive calculations, rather than just repeating what someone else did before you. Intelligence is defined as how many facts you can stuff into your head, not how good you are at figuring things out for yourself.
The media doesn’t help, either. Pollack explores the well-known ails of science journalism, and the stigma against public communication in the scientific community. He shares a great example of how the media turned an amateur earthquake prediction, with no support from geologists, into a national frenzy that led to evacuations and the closure of schools. Mainstream journalists, in general, are not good at assessing credibility for scientific issues, but their influence on the public is so great that frequent mistakes by journalists lead to worldwide misconceptions.
This public illusion of certainty, in a field that actually thrives on uncertainty, can be easily exploited by vested interests. “When scientists acknowledge that they do not know everything about a complex natural phenomenon,” writes Pollack, “the public sometimes translates that to mean that scientists do not know anything about the subject,” and, for issues such as climate change, there are many people actively encouraging this jump in logic.
After the stellar beginning, the rest of the book is somewhat more mediocre, albeit still enjoyable. Pollack uses a series of examples and metaphors to explain irreducible measurement error, confidence expressed as statistical probability, conceptual and numerical models, experimentation, and forecasting vs hindcasting. As Pollack is currently studying how rocks retain heat and provide a record of past temperatures that can be used as proxy paleo data, facets of climate science are used as examples in nearly every chapter, and the last chapter of the book is devoted to climate change. However, he also uses examples from economics, plate tectonics, election polling, and the legal system. It is truly a multidisciplinary approach that will appeal to scientists and science enthusiasts from every field. Highly recommended to all.
This is of course slightly off topic now, but there was a talk by Dr Pollack on Fora.tv hosted by the Commonwealth Club