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Science and the future

Science and the future

Why uncertainty and doubt should be embraced, not feared.

Tessa Dunlop, Institute of Environmental Science and Technology - Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB)

An old Jewish joke goes: “How do you make God laugh? Tell Him about your plans.” The joke is as relevant today as it was hundreds of years ago. But in our time, as the world becomes more complex, the harder it seems to predict our future.

This theme is prescient in both Helga Nowotny’s The Cunning of Uncertainty and The Rightful Place of Science: Science on the Verge, co-written by a consortium of eight scientists. Both books show us how we use tools to help manage our expectations for the future. Technology-driven opinion polls predict election results, algorithms assess financial markets and earth system modelling provides insight into scenarios under a warmer climate. But sometimes these predictions get it wrong.

Polls underestimated the likelihood of Trump’s win and the outcome of the Brexit referendum, while few algorithms predicted the 2008 financial crisis. Moreover, the possible future scenarios under a hotter climate are so complex that there is the possibility that some parts of the world will get colder due to altered ocean currents, cloud formations and ecosystem dynamics. The culprit? Uncertainty. But how do we understand it, assess it, and cope with it? Against this backdrop, the books invite us to reflect on one of the most successful tools our civilized world has developed to coexist with uncertainty: science.

Nowotny describes uncertainty as “cunning”, because, like a stealthy fox, it emerges when you least expect it. To her, the cunning of uncertainty is more than the mere realization that the more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know. These are called known unknowns. Even more cunning are the unknown unknowns – things that we don’t even know we don’t know. Take, for example, climate change. In The Rightful Place of Science: Science on the Verge, Jeroen P. van der Sluijs describes earth system modelling as “terra incognita”. Historic Vostok ice-cores show levels of up to 280 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere. Currently, we live in a world with levels exceeding 400 ppm – and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that this level could rise to 1,100 ppm. Put simply, it means that “the past is no longer the key to the future”. We do not know how different systems will react under such pressure, and what sort of tipping points and feedback loops will present themselves.

Nowotny takes a philosophical approach to tackling uncertainty. She likens our craving for certainty today to the ancient Chinese practice of reading oracle bones. During the Shang dynasty some 3,000 years ago, diviners would carve questions on the underside of turtle shells or the shoulder blades of oxen and read the answers in cracks that appeared when heat was applied. The diviners could then interpret the answers to determine the fate of harvests, of military campaigns and of the ruling elites.

Today, oracle bones have been replaced by sophisticated algorithms with refined tools and complex simulation models to analyse big data, financial markets and economics, she says. The only difference between then and now is that we no longer rely on gods to decide our future. In a post-deterministic world, we relish the power to shape it ourselves. In this way, Nowotny warns us against placing too much faith in modern science and technology to solve our problems. She reveals the inherent paradox of uncertainty: while we loathe it and crave for certainty, in the end we must embrace it – and she coaxes us to do so, despite our natural inclination to shirk it. Instead of leaving the reader with a sense of despair about the current state of science, she gives us a healthy dose of optimism: the promise of discovering the new and unimaginable is what drives science, she says, and making mistakes is an integral part of that process. And, after all, it’s not always best to know what’s around the corner.

While The Cunning of Uncertainty offers a food-for-thought warning, the eight authors of The Rightful Place of Science: Science on the Verge take things an urgent step further. They collectively argue that science in all its guises – on a practical, institutional, and existential level – is on the verge of crisis. They view science through a post-normal lens (Funtowicz and Ravetz, «Science for the post-normal age», 1993), which casts a critical eye on the use of scientific knowledge for policymaking, linking it to problems in the governance of science itself. They see fault lines forming in scientific bodies, in the reliability of research, and in the capacity of scientists to communicate complex problems with society and, importantly, how scientists interact with policymakers, a frontier known as the “science-policy interface”. They cite controversial issues that have eroded public trust in science such as the dangers of nuclear power, climate change, genetically modified organisms, the impact of pesticides on bees and shale gas fracking, that are “so deeply entangled in webs of barely separable facts, interests and values that the parties concerned cannot find agreement on the nature of the problem, not to speak of the solution.”

One of the most visible dangers in science is the reduction of complex, non-linear and ambiguous phenomena into crisp, easily digestible numbers, both books contend. Van der Sluijs cites a news headline announcing that 7.9% of the world’s species would become extinct as a result of climate change. But how can this be, he asks, when we don’t currently know the number of species on the planet?

But the problem runs deeper than just the simplification of numbers. The authors view the reduction of complex issues as a symptom of an unhealthy relationship between scientists and policymakers, under the paradigm of “evidence-based policy”. They diagnose the problem as a process of “hypocognition” – an excessive simplification and compression of people’s perceptions of issues, explanations and solutions. Hypocognition is linked to the idea of “socially constructed ignorance”, where individuals and institutions develop simplified versions of the world to make sense of its complexity – whilst excluding a great deal of information that might contradict that view. In this light, the authors see an unrealistic expectation within society and among policymakers that scientists are omniscient and can provide all the right answers. “It assumes that we need to produce a quantitative answer, because that is what we believe science is able and supposed to do.”

One example where science may overlook important details is through the IPCC’s consensus procedure, Van der Sluijs explains. Experts from different fields are obliged to reach agreement on the effects of climate change. While this method is effective in delivering the most robust findings, it can omit less likely but nevertheless important scenarios. In the first IPCC report, Van der Sluijs continues, “the policymakers’ summary mentioned neither the possible collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet nor the collapse of thermohaline circulation in the oceans as relevant scenarios for climate policy.” He says that while this literature was included in the detailed chapters of the first IPCC report, it was excluded from the policymakers’ summary because it was impossible to reach consensus on these issues. But, he says, “such scenarios were and still are extremely policy-relevant, because policymakers should be interested in the possibility that a five-metre sea level rise could result if the West Antarctic ice sheet were to collapse. Policymakers and society need to know about these types of scenarios even if scientists cannot reach consensus on them.”

A key lesson of both books here is that we cannot ignore uncertainty and – especially  – that we should not fool ourselves that we have tamed it. On a practical level, this means presenting quantitative information to policymakers in a more responsible way – offering multiple scenarios rather than one simple answer, providing more transparency about how results were generated, and performing quality control such as sensitivity analyses. Rather than suppress any uncertainties, The Rightful Place of Science: Science on the Verge exhorts to “deliberately reintroduce doubts and scruples into the process of deliberation.”

One fundamental way to address doubts is to probe the critical questions: why do we supress uncertainty in the first place, and for whose gain? Science is never an apolitical act. Numbers are never simply numbers. They are always part of a wider frame or narrative which can change based on the distinctive cultural or political context – a point which all the authors adamantly push home. Take the narrative espoused by the Eisenhower administration in 1953 that nuclear power would provide unlimited energy to people and nations, say Alice Benessia and Silvio Funtowicz. “Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter [...] will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds,” said Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1954.

Today, Nowotny says, many still pin a large hope on technology and science: “The new redemptive force, championed by governments and industry, is innovation… however vague the concept remains.” Technical solutions are easier to implement than making changes to the fabric of society, she says, especially when they threaten established hierarchies and vested interests. But once we view science as a political medium, it opens up the possibility for a collective discussion, explain Benessia et al. For example, should we accept the assumption that technological advancement is making our lives happier, or is technology bringing with it a raft of more complex problems? Do we want more predictability in a world dictated by computers? Does a loss of uncertainty throw up another contradiction, that in a more routine-oriented and less creative world, we leave ourselves less adaptable to change? In this way, the authors call for more democratic scientific processes that include a range of stakeholder views, normative stances and participation.

While the books run in parallel on core ideas exploring what science means in today’s world – the importance of political framing being a prime example – they offer different angles. Nowotny calls on us to think, with a carefully constructed sequence of paradoxes and philosophical grey areas. The eight authors, on the other hand, call on us to act, providing a manifesto of expert insight and practical measures to improve science as an institution. For a full bird’s-eye view on the state of science and policymaking, both books are essential reading, and offer an important conclusion: rather than trying to predict our future, or worrying that we may not have the right tools to prevent unforeseen disasters, perhaps we should first ask what sort of future we want. 

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