We must learn to love uncertainty and failure, say leading thinkers

24. January 2011

   Date: 15-01-2011
 Source: The Guardian

Planet’s biggest brains answer this year’s Edge question: ‘What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?’

Edge of reason: Doubt and uncertainty are essential elements of the scientific process. Photograph: Getty Images

Being comfortable with uncertainty, knowing the limits of what science can tell us, and understanding the worth of failure are all valuable tools that would improve people’s lives, according to some of the world’s leading thinkers.

The ideas were submitted as part of an annual exercise by the web magazine Edge, which invites scientists, philosophers and artists to opine on a major question of the moment. This year it was, “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

The magazine called for “shorthand abstractions” – a way of encapsulating an idea or scientific concept into a short description that could be used as a component of bigger questions. The responses were published online today.

Many responses pointed out that the public often misunderstands the scientific process and the nature of scientific doubt. This can fuel public rows over the significance of disagreements between scientists about controversial issues such as climate change and vaccine safety.

Carlo Rovelli, a physicist at the University of Aix-Marseille, emphasised the uselessness of certainty. He said that the idea of something being “scientifically proven” was practically an oxymoron and that the very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt.

“A good scientist is never ‘certain’. Read the rest of this entry »