Science and the Uncertainty Principle

When scientific findings are released, people often focus on “scientific uncertainty” instead of on the usefulness of those findings for the public.

Within the framework of science, the uncertainty principle refers to the limits of knowledge, rather than indicating distrust of the system. The awareness of these limits has motivated scientific fields to require increased transparency, confidence, and credibility. This includes:

  • Transparency about what is known and what is not known, which is communicated in numbers, data, charts and graphs, and confidence intervals.
  • Credibility that comes from the requirement that findings are shared among peers and systematically reviewed by colleagues.
  • Confidence in the findings is supported by requirements to report how much statistical risk exists in the data.

The limit of scientific knowledge is more accurately referred to as “levels of confidence”—high confidence as in “textbook science,” intermediate as in “a growing body of evidence,” and low as in “the jury is still out.” It is important to note that low-confidence findings may result from research on critical questions well worth exploring with as-yet-uncertain answers, and this uncertainty in the beginning stages has been present throughout the history of science.

Science for Understanding and for Utility

Scientists view their research on a continuum from “pure” research for the sake of understanding how the world works to “applied” research for technological innovation or problem-solving. Of course, ecology and environmental science are among the fields that are keenly interested in a combination of the two approaches, sometimes referred to as Pasteur’s Quadrant, or “use-inspired basic research” that aims to both advance basic knowledge and seek solutions to human problems.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an example of scientists who convene to both extract useful information from basic research and to frame research questions that deliver useful information for problem solving. The Union of Concerned Scientists is an organization specifically focused on using available scientific knowledge to create and advocate for policy that supports sustainability and equity.

Roles Scientists Play in Public Policy

Scientists have a critical role to play in bringing evidence-based information to decision-makers in government and business. When they draw from local and regional research, they are particularly helpful sources of information for elected officials. Scientists themselves are professionally required to be clear about the basis for their public statements about scientific findings. The Union of Concerned Scientists provides helpful typology of roles scientists play in public policy discussions:

  • Pure scientist: reports findings and describes the process of data collection and analysis.
  • Science arbiter: weighs various scientific points of view.
  • Honest broker: promotes values and knowledge at a table alongside business interests and other stakeholders.
  • Issue advocate: takes a position on action based on values, findings, and interests.

Scientists as Public Speakers

In a public audience, at a legislative hearing, or at a media event, scientist speakers need to be clear about their individual scientific expertise. This clarity includes making a distinction between discussing findings from their own field and discussing findings from other scientific fields.

An effective speaker will also deliver a couple clear takeaway messages for the non-scientist audience. If you are interested in science related to local ecological or environmental policy issues, you might encourage local groups to feature scientists whose research is conducted locally, where they have the most credibility with policy makers.