Thursday, January 26, 2012

Policymakers and scientific uncertainty

Scientist know that uncertainty is intrinsic to science and that not all questions can be answered with 100 per cent certainty and even widely accepted theories can be challenged by new evidence. However, non-scientists — and that includes most policymakers — are less aware of this. Rather, policymakers look to scientists for definitive answers that help them make decisions. So how can you give policymakers the information they need while also communicating science's inherent uncertainty? Natural systems by their nature are inherently variable. Whether in climate systems or human reactions to new medicines, variability can make predictions uncertain. Uncertainty drives science forwards, and keeps scientists looking for answers. The 20th century physicist Richard Feynman once said "it's much more interesting to live not knowing, than to have answers which might be wrong". But for policymakers, uncertainty is problematic, particularly around controversial choices on the environment or public health. Policymakers like to have definite answers — an impossibility in science.

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