Science of certainty vs. science of wonder in Blind Spot

Last week Abbie, Renee, and I had the chance to discuss during the book Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty by William Byers. According to the preface, “This book will demonstrate that our understanding of science is simplistic and thus inadequate to the task at hand… Most of us assume that science is monolithic – science is science is science – but this book will demonstrate that science carries within it diverse tendencies.” The simplistic understanding of science as just a body of knowledge, termed the “science of certainty” by Byers, views science as a pursuit to rid the world of uncertainty. Byers argues that this approach does not acknowledge the “blind spot” in science, which is the inherent ambiguity that exists in science (I will not try to attempt to explain this ambiguity, since I still do not have a clear understanding of it). Byers, however, provides an alternate approach to science that is driven by the sense of wonder (or the mysterious), which he terms “science of wonder.” As Byers notes, “the one crucial difference involves their attitude toward uncertainty and incompleteness.” While the “science of wonder” is born out of uncertainty and mystery and therefore accepts them as part of nature and science, the “science of certainty” attempts to rid of the uncertainty. If any uncertainties exist, the “science of certainty” views that more science can help remedy that uncertainty. Using these two ways of viewing science as a starting point, Byers dives into many nuanced interpretations of the role of meta-concepts in science, such as subjectivity, objectivity, unity, and ambiguity.

Now, unlike previous recaps of books that I’ve written in the past, I want to take this idea of how science grapples with uncertainty and see its applications to when science is communicated to the public. While it may be a simplistic way of looking at science, I think that the division of science between the “science of certainty” and the “science of wonder” can be used as a lens to look at a) science education and b) the application of science in policy.

a) In the first case, I think that the division of “science of certainty” and the “science of wonder” provide a nice lens to look at different approaches to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. There have been recent reports pushing to teach science as a process of inquiry, beyond the teaching of just scientific facts. The emphasis of science as inquiry gets at the root of Byers’s “science of wonder”, which goes further and gets at the root of the process of inquiry. For example, when I am doing outreach events, I definitely try to emphasize the “science of wonder” over the the “science of certainty”. The sense of surprise or wonder usually helps keep the kids engaged when presenting our outreach demos. We inevitably need both approaches to teaching science (What can science tell us about the world around us? & How do we learn about the world around us?), but I agree with Byers that when we portray science solely as just made up of the body of knowledge, we fail to impart to students that science is a human activity that follows from a very human reaction to be curious and to try to figure out what is going on. At an even higher level of science education, Byers notes that there is a lack of addressing “the difficulties inherent in taking seriously within a discussion of science the fact that the scientist is not some disembodied intelligence but a human being fully implicated in every way in her scientific work.”

b) When I came across the “science of wonder” in the Blind Spot, I was initially skeptical of whether it can be applied to situations where science is applied to policy. After all, my simplistic view is that when science is used in policy, science is there to inform policy about what we know. An ongoing tug of war does, however, exist between our desire for science to tell us every fact that we need to know to make a decision and our desire to properly acknowledge the limitations of what science can tell us. I think this brings up the issue of uncertainty, a delicate and difficult issue when having to communicate science to the public. In order to grapple with uncertainty, I think that the inherent uncertainty in nature, our human desire to control those uncertainties, and the limitations of science in reducing some uncertainties are topics that need to be addressed in a conversation between scientists and the public. Perhaps part of the problem and difficulty discussing uncertainty is that it is associated with ideas and feelings of not knowing, insecurity, fear, and anxiety. As Byers notes, “We need stability and permanence; we need certainty, but we are presented with a world whose single rule seems to be transience, change, and impermanence.” I think that a conversation about scientific uncertainty in the view of decision making will need to dig deeper to address the people’s desire for certainty and control. Getting back to the role of the scientist in policy-making, this may be where the ideas of the role of scientists as honest brokers come in, but I’ll leave that for a later discussion.

Byers uses anecdotes from historical scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers to add layers of complexity (or richness) to science. Other areas were difficult to follow because Byers did not want to get of rid of the ambiguity of ambiguity (yes, you read that right). Since many of the issues he discusses can be applied to my own discipline, I spent much time reading a passage, thinking about how it applied to atmospheric science and climate science, and then reading the next passage. It was a book that asked a lot out of the reader, but I found it well worth the effort.


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