Excerpt from publication originally posted at Sense About Science.
"Introduction: Why Make Sense of Uncertainty?
"Scientific uncertainty is prominent in research that has big implications for our society: could the Arctic be ice-free in summer by 2080? Will a new cancer drug be worth its side effects? Is this strain of ‘flu going to be a dangerous epidemic?
"Uncertainty is normal currency in scientific research. Research goes on because we don’t know everything. Researchers then have to estimate how much of the picture is known and how confident we can all be that their findings tell us what’s happening or what’s going to happen. This is uncertainty. But in public discussion scientific uncertainty is presented as a deficiency of research. We want (even expect) certainty – safety, effective public policies, useful public expenditure.
"Uncertainty is seen as worrying, and even a reason to be cynical about scientific research – particularly on subjects such as climate science, the threat of disease or the prediction of natural disasters. In some discussions, uncertainty is taken by commentators to mean that anything could be true, including things that are highly unlikely or discredited, or that nothing is known. This conflict frustrates us at Sense About Science, and we know that it frustrates researchers we work with and the public we hear from. Some clearer ideas about what researchers mean by scientific uncertainty – and where uncertainty can be measured and where it can’t – would help everyone with how to respond to the uncertainty in evidence.
"This guide has brought together specialists in many areas – climate science, clinical research, natural hazard prediction, public health, biostatistics and epidemiology. We asked them for the reasons why they are not automatically so troubled by the presence of uncertainty in the most heated debates. We have looked at what uncertainty means and doesn’t mean in science, how it is measured, when it can’t be measured and how that might change through research into the big questions. Above all we asked how other people can grapple constructively with advances in knowledge and changes in thinking, instead of despairing at ‘those uncertain scientists’."