Science, Uncertainty and Being Right

Science, Uncertainty and Being Right

The October 2010 Scientific American reports on an exclusive poll about trust in science. For the most part, people trust scientists, but not at the highest level, especially when it comes to things that non-scientists have personal experience with.  At the low end of the trust rung were food safety, vitamins and supplements, genetically modified crops, pesticides, depression drugs and flu pandemics. Not surprising then, was the find that the most trusted areas were more abstract: evolution, renewable energy and origin of the universe. Yes, renewable energy is a bit more prosaic than evolution or cosmology, but it encompasses a number of possible paths forward, which makes the statement “renewable energy” more abstract.

In terms of uncertainty, I find it interesting that the less uncertain people are about something, the lower their trust level with science. One of the best documented cases that often causes scenario planning buffs some grief is the forecast of the demise of the Bald Eagle because of DDT. Scientists were certain the Bald Eagle was heading toward extinction. The Bald Eagle is thriving today. I personally enjoy seeing the breeding pair on Lake Sammamish almost every day I drive the lake. The disappearance of the Bald Eagle was averted because DDT was banned and the Eagle was put under multiple levels of Federal Protection. A near certainty didn’t play out because people ,and their representative government, proactively heeded the science. The same is probably true of the recent H1N1 flu pandemic, that really was a pandemic (WHO estimates over 14,000 people died around the world from the outbreak) – because the science was so in the news, people took steps that curtailed the outbreak.

When it comes to science, though, the ideology of governments plays a role in perception. 65% of respondents in China said scientists should pay attention to the wishes of the public, even if they think the citizens are mistaken or do not understand their work. In contrast, US numbers for that question were 26%. Worldwide the number was 31%. When I work on scenarios, the ideology of the government is a big uncertainty. When it shifts, so too shifts acceptable perceptions of science and technology, and by proxy, the openness of learning.

Ideological Influence on Science and Citizens

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Scientists should pay attention to the wishes of the public, even if they think the citizens are mistaken or do not understand their work. Derived from Scientific American Poll, In Science We Trust, October 2010.

When it comes to the future, we do have an influence. Understanding the influence of technology or biology, on the human species can avert disaster, or coax crisis back from the brink. Scientists are not always right, but they are usually cautiously loud, and their positions rarely as detrimental as doing nothing. It is sciences place to be both right and wrong, because being wrong is part of the path way to more insight, and more accuracy. For scenario planners the question is more often than not whether the science is right or wrong, but how people will respond to the science.

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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