As a lifelong scientist with a background in research at different universities, I have recently come to the conclusion that science research is not very well understood, especially here in the United States. Here is a brief explanation:

Doubt: Scientists interpret data, form predictive hypotheses (explanations) and test their hypotheses’ predictions against nature (the real world). During the whole process, one is open to unexpected observations by lacking the tunnel vision that might focus on biases. To a scientist, it is important to embrace uncertainty and maintain doubt, because if one limits observational scope, you also limit your ability to detect and engage in new discoveries.

Therefore, it is important scientists have awareness of ignorance, doubt and uncertainty. Science recognizes its limits and leaves room for doubt. Overall, scientific understanding is a body of knowledge with different degrees of predictive certainty. Some are “most unsure” or uncertain, some “nearly completely sure”, but none are “absolutely sure.” Nearly completely sure explanations (scientific theories) have high predictive value (Think: Theory of Gravity and its use by NASA).

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Reasonable and unreasonable doubt: Scientific doubt often deals with experimental design, rigor of procedures, statistical evaluation and interpretation of previous works. This approach recently rooted out the corrupted nature of the evidence suggesting vaccines cause autism. But unreasonable doubt has often been socially exploited to question broad scientific claims of “nearly completely sure” or consensus scientific theories, such as: The earth is 4.5 billion years old (not only 10,000 years), or smoking tobacco causes increased risk of cancer, or our planet is getting warmer due to human fossil fuel use.

Such unreasonable doubt mongering works socially because most people think science is about hard, irrefutable facts (i.e. yes or no answers) rather than a process of discovery of nature’s probabilistic but highly predictive natural laws. Doubt drives science forward, but it also makes it vulnerable to societal misrepresentation by others seeking their immediate rewards.

Certainty, confidence and extremism: In 1933, Bertrand Russell, the mathematician/philosopher, wrote an essay called “The Triumph of Stupidity.” Within it he attributed the rise of Hitler to the organized fervor of stupid and brutal people. Here he made his famous observation that, “the fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.

This statement predates the scientific discovery of a particular cognitive bias called, “the Dunning-Kruger Effect.”

Dunning and Kruger published a paper in 1990 that demonstrated incompetent people think they know more than they really do and are boastful about their assumed knowledge. Dunning and Kruger gave tests using various subject matters and asked participants how they thought they did on their tests. They were also asked how many of the other participants they beat. Participants that did most poorly ranked themselves much higher. Those least likely to know what they were talking about believed they knew as much as the experts. The poorest performers were also the ones least likely to accept criticism or be interested in self-improvement.

Robert Burton, a neuroscientist, demonstrated that human “certainty” is an emotion much like fear or anxiety. Its main driving forces are narcissism and feeling comfortable or accepted within one’s group. Thus, certainty and confidence are independent of correctness, understanding, truth and knowledge. In fact, there might be an inverse relationship between confidence and correctness. People trapped by their certainty are incapable of accepting criticism, and can’t admit failure. They are unable to learn from failures, therefore often perpetuating them.

Expressing honest evidential doubt and uncertainty should increase trustworthiness. One should be very wary of one who asserts to know the truth by their gut, social reasons or through some higher authority. Science’s approximation of reality using observable evidence has greater predictive value and reliability than any other process in our modern era. With regard to reality (be it coronavirus or climate change) if one can’t accommodate to the situation (uncertainty, change) by making the necessary social actions, the situation (nature) will ignore you and take over, in spite of you.

As someone who has gone on long multi-day hikes, I can testify to the fact that nature doesn’t care or concern itself about group comfort wishes.

Gerald W. Eagleson, professor emeritus of the Biology Department at Loras College, taught and did research at Loras from 1978 until 2008. He also obtained research grants to do research at the University of Texas, Indiana University, the University of California at San Diego, Virginia University, Raboud University (in Nijmegen, the Netherlands), Murcia University (Spain), and Moscow State University (with Virginia University).