The Second Version

18/07/08

The Courage of Admitting Limits

"We don't know (yet)" is a perfectly valid answer in the field of science - and to a lesser degree, technology.

Because it is only true that our knowledge of a number of phenomena, from the rather trivial ones to issues of huge importance, is fairly limited; sometimes down to the grade of "placeholder speculation". This is not due to negligence or lack of interest (well, most of the times) or dark conspiracies. No, the reason is that some phenomena are goddamn difficult to investigate and even a profusion of people, time and money will give only modest results.

Implied in the "we don't know" statement, however, there is the idea that more knowledge will be gained, and at some point we will know. The process can be slow and incremental, or enjoy a sudden breakthrough, but advance is almost assured.

This has happened many times in the past: the chemical structure of benzene has been clarified long after the hydrocarbon had entered common use; the clinical use of penicillin had started before its mechanism of action was determined, and blacksmiths had begun tempering steel centuries before modern chemistry and cristallography were born.

At this point there is a BUT: most laypeople are not aware of these realities of science and technology, and they want to know everything, right now. They hardly will accept the "we don't know" answer: it will leave them unsatisfied, and in the worst case thinking that the scientists are actually useless.

To avoid this unpleasant situation, especially when political or financial pressure is strong, scientist can be tempted to make up an explanation of sorts just to make those annoying chaps go away, or to keep the money flowing. But this is a treacherous road to take, because these makeshift explanations are rahter likely to be wrong, while at the same time can become entrenched in public opinion (as the first to appear on the scene) and impossible to dislodge.

Scientists should instead resist the temptation and say "we don't know (yet)" if in fact there is not enough information on a certain subject, and explain briefly why this is not an admission of defeat but instead business as usual. Scientist should especially resist the temptation to give "policy recommendations" in absence of a reasonable theory for the phenomenon being discussed. Forlorn hope.

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2 Commenti:

  • Do I hear echoes of the global warming?

    Di Anonymous Wellington, Alle 21/7/08 12:37  

  • Sure you do, but this post is meant to be about interactions of science and politics in general.

    Di Blogger Fabio, Alle 21/7/08 16:29  

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