Uncertainty in science

Uncertainty in science

An article written by Professor Tim Palmer FRS.

Recognition of uncertainty is a characteristic of the scientific method and can be viewed from different aspects – mathematical, philosophical and statistical. Important decisions are made, in government and business, in the light of uncertain scientific advice, yet the methods by which different scientific disciplines assess and communicate uncertainty are rarely compared. A cross-fertilisation of ideas for how to represent and communicate uncertainty could have enormous benefits on our understanding of everything from economics to health issues or climate change.

Recent public debate about climate change has undoubtedly demonstrated that uncertainty in science needs to be more effectively explained. Despite a growing number of suggestions that the science of climate change is becoming more uncertain, weather and climate scientists have, in fact, pioneered techniques to assess uncertainty in the evolution of complex nonlinear systems and our understanding is growing more confident. However, we are not yet fully exploiting the inherent value of our knowledge of uncertainty in communicating with business, government, the media and the public.

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