Health

How Science Works: Uncertainty Spurs Scientific Progress

Citizens and scientists have two very different ways of reasoning. While citizens find comfort in certainty, scientists need to continually challenge the facts. Is it possible for these two groups to find common ground?

Research is by nature a dynamic process. Scientists start with an observation, make a hypothesis, test the hypothesis through experiments, analyze the results, and form a conclusion. But more often than not, that conclusion raises new questions, which lead to more observations, new hypotheses, more experiments, and so on.

This capacity to accept uncertainty and use it to move forward is one of the strengths of scientific research. Scientists view uncertainty as a way to measure just how accurately they’re able to describe a phenomenon. By incorporating uncertainty into their research process, they can have greater confidence in the conclusions they draw from an experiment, pilot test or clinical trial, for example. That also helps them identify what variables need to be studied to improve their results. Uncertainty therefore brings a lot of benefits. It also prods scientists through an iterative process, bringing them closer and closer to accurate theories about the world around us.

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This issue is explored in detail in the Are you sure? series of podcasts by EPFL’s College of Humanities (CDH). Scientists from CDH discuss how they incorporate doubt and uncertainty into their work. For all of them, this healthy skepticism provides a crucial stimulus for taking their research further and assuaging their doubt – knowing full well that some element of doubt will always remain. It’s a process of trying to reach a target that’s always moving further away.

Geneticist Denis Duboule, one of the podcasters, feels that he’s not on a quest to find the truth, but rather “various elements of truth that, when lined up like dots, indicate a direction and give a clearer picture of what’s going on.” That picture is subsequently tweaked and refined through additional research. Assyr Abdulle, another podcaster and a professor in mathematics, explains that doubt and a margin of error are always present in his research, even though his field is often perceived as one with the clearest right-or-wrong answers. “Actually, creativity is very important in mathematics,” he says. “You start off with confusion about a given problem, then you work it out and get some clarity, but then you take a step back and the confusion returns. The clarity you find inevitably leads to further questions to clarify.” In his podcast, Henrik Ronnow, an expert in quantum magnetics, says that research sits at the frontier between the known and unknown and that the scientists’ job is to do what they can to build up the former. “From that perspective, the question isn’t ‘Are we sure of what we’ve found?’ but rather, ‘What do we still not know?’” he says. “Thinking about what you don’t know is a much more interesting approach. You’ll never be able to prove that a given theory is right with 100% certainty, but you can prove that a theory is false. As scientists, what we can say is: ‘My findings describe the results of experiments that are currently possible to carry out.’”

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