Uncertainty matters

In a post I wrote earlier this year, I noted a sentiment expressed in The Economist about understanding and embracing uncertainty.

…recent reforms to the IPCC’s procedures will do little to change its tendency to focus on the areas where there is greater consensus, avoiding the uncertainties which, though unpalatable for scientists, are important to policy. (link)

Which I felt was contrary to the way we, as scientists, speak among ourselves about policy makers. Specifically, that it is they who fear and misunderstand the implications of uncertainty.

This is the same perception which has led to the launch today by the group Sense About Science of a publication titled Making Sense of Uncertainty: Why uncertainty is part of science.

Launching a guide to Making Sense of Uncertainty at the World Conference of Science Journalists today, researchers working in some of the most significant, cutting edge fields say that if policy makers and the public are discouraged by the existence of uncertainty, we miss out on important discussions about the development of new drugs, taking action to mitigate the impact of natural hazards, how to respond to the changing climate and to pandemic threats.

Interrogated with the question ‘But are you certain?’, they say, they have ended up sounding defensive or as though their results are not meaningful. Instead we need to embrace uncertainty, especially when trying to understand more about complex systems, and ask about operational knowledge: ‘What do we need to know to make a decision? And do we know it?’

The report seems to be in line with arguments I have made about uncertainty and decision making as they pertain to ecological research, management, and policy.

Among the contributors to the report is someone who I consider to be among the best when it comes to understanding and communicating uncertainty, David Spiegelhalter. While I haven’t made my way all the way through it yet, it looks like this report will be an informative read for both scientists and policy makers (oh ya, and journalists — can’t forget about them).

Who knows, we might be able to stop the finger pointing and work together in mutual understanding of the importance of uncertainty.

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