Learning to love uncertainty

by Judith Curry

I am returning to the topic of uncertainty (my article for Climate Change on this topic is overdue).  I just spotted this article (h/t Bishop Hill):

We must learn to love uncertainty and failure, say leading thinkers Planet’s biggest brains answer this year’s Edge question: ‘What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?’

Some excerpts:

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?”

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’. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain: because the good scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better elements of evidence, or novel arguments emerge. Therefore certainty is not only something of no use, but is in fact damaging, if we value reliability.”

The physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University agreed. “In the public parlance, uncertainty is a bad thing, implying a lack of rigour and predictability. The fact that global warming estimates are uncertain, for example, has been used by many to argue against any action at the present time,” he said.

“In fact, however, uncertainty is a central component of what makes science successful. Being able to quantify uncertainty, and incorporate it into models, is what makes science quantitative, rather than qualitative. Indeed, no number, no measurement, no observable in science is exact. Quoting numbers without attaching an uncertainty to them implies they have, in essence, no meaning.”

Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Centre for Bits and Atoms wants everyone to know that “truth” is just a model. “The most common misunderstanding about science is that scientists seek and find truth. They don’t – they make and test models,” he said.

“Building models is very different from proclaiming truths. It’s a never-ending process of discovery and refinement, not a war to win or destination to reach. Uncertainty is intrinsic to the process of finding out what you don’t know, not a weakness to avoid. Bugs are features – violations of expectations are opportunities to refine them. And decisions are made by evaluating what works better, not by invoking received wisdom.”

92 responses to “Learning to love uncertainty

  1. This should be the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath for scientists.

    Truth is an ever evolving river of shifting currents. Conviction has its value as a working tool, sort of like channel markers in a river–they have to be moved as shoals and sand bars shift. Humans can’t live without conviction, but scientists must recognize that their discipline is intrinsically non-human.

    • Yet homo sapiens is the only species we know that practices the discipline. You may have uncovered a really fundamental problem, Pete! But I think I know what you mean. Hold lightly to our convictions, always be open to new data, embrace uncertainty in all its forms. I’d argue that such an attitude makes us more human, makes us much better human beings.

    • You are right, Judith!

      And you too, Pete!

      “To know that you do not know is the best.
      To pretend to know when you do not know is a disease.

      Lao-tzu, The Way of Lao-tzu
      Chinese philosopher (604 BC – 531 BC)

      I have enjoyed 50 years of “truthing” since starting research in 1960. Creative living, science, art, and music are journeys of “truthing,”

      Dogmatic science and dogmatic religion are much alike.
      [Scientific Genesis: 1. Origin of the Solar System]:

      Oliver K. Manuel

    • “Truth is an ever evolving river of shifting currents.” Sorry, but this sounds horribly post-modern and misguided to me. The “truth” is that a lot of what we think of as true is probably – but not certainly – true. We just don’t know, and will never know, which bits we’re getting wrong at any one time. Saying we can never be certain that we have found the truth is not the same as saying it does not exist, nor that we should not attempt to seek it. And what we can do, again provisionally, but usefully, is to extirpate falsehood.

      • Hmmm, interesting. It does sound post-modern, but then I think you have to distinguish between the short-hand for the regularities of experience (physical equations) and actual reality, don’t you? For example, ask a physicist to describe a Quark and he can do so, in terms of other things and in relation to physical equations, forces, fields and so forth. But ask him again what it actually is and you’ll almost certainly be given a blank stare.

        Lawrence Kraus, for example, reminds us that in 100bn years, all other galaxies will be so far away and the cosmic microwave background so dim, that any future civilisation will look out into the Universe and conclude that the Milky Way is the only galaxy. They won’t have a “big bang” theory, or a theory of inflation, or dark matter, or dark energy, because the evidence will have gone! So to some extent what you can know is always uncertain, if only because the regularities you are trying to describe have to be evident in the first place.

        By the way the link above, if you haven’t seen it, is a fantastic example of brilliant science communication.

    • I think that discussion and understanding could help by differentiating “fact” from “truth.” As scientists we do not discover Truth. We interpret instead. Truth is a philosophical and religious concept. Fact is what we as scientists deal with, and fact is what is shifting and changing. Fact is an interpretation of empirical experience – data and measurements. Interpretation changes as our understanding changes (whether our understanding improves or not is a another question). A postmodernist might question the empirical reality – truth of a bus – but a scientist can always toss a postmodernist in front of a bus and measure the effects. From that we can then argue facts – the bus is real, the postmodernist is not, etc. When we mistake science and scientific explanation for dogmatic truth in the philosophical or religious sense we no longer are practicing science.

  2. “Truth is an ever evolving river of shifting currents.”


    *Ideas* are ever evolving. The truth is always the same.


    • Andrew, you are advocating one of the two opposing views on the greatest question: the nature of ultimate reality. Many scientists view mathematics as transcendent truth. Yet it is possible to imagine a realm of pure unbounded chaos in which mathematics has no useful function.

      Truth as I’ve defined it in my post above is a compromise between these two intractable absolutes. Even within pure randomness, pockets of apparent order appear (as in flipping a coin and getting ten straight heads), and our universe (all observable reality and all reality it is possible to observe) could be within one such pocket.

      • “Truth” is the measure of how “truly” the semantic content of a statement ABOUT the matter in question corresponds to the ontological fact OF the matter in question. Because it appears to be impossible, outside the realm of tautology, to be certain of exactly how “true” any proposition is, some people seem to have concluded that as a matter of epistemology there is no “fact OF the matter”. Others seem to have concluded that the “fact OF the matter” is whatever it is said to be. For myself I would prefer to say that “Truth is a matter of approximation” rather than “Truth is an ever evolving river of shifting currents.”

      • “Yet it is possible to imagine a realm of pure unbounded chaos in which mathematics has no useful function.”


        It’s possible to imagine lots of things. It’s possible that my house is actually the shoe of a giant.

        I’d say that fantasy has it’s place in entertainment, but I wouldn’t use it in trying to figure out how to relate to the world around you. Some imagined possibilities just aren’t useful.


    • Bad,

      You’ve missed the distortion of the truth.
      If science cannot go back to square one and start over, they miss seeing mistakes made.
      Instead they have moved ahead and added mistakes on top of mistakes which has very much burried truth.

      • I agree with this.

        It’s as if the goal of The Academic/Scientific Establishment has been: “Dumb ’em Down, Then Lie To ‘Em”


  3. Let’s not forget to include the “unknown unknowns” into the incertainty morass …


    • Pointman,
      When you try to bring the unknown forth, does it fall within the confines of our current scientific laws?
      If it does not, it will be dismissed before even being looked at by current physicists and scientists that embrass those confines.

      • Hello Joe. By definition, an unknown is as yet unknown. A factor whose existence is not known. A recent and germane example would be Sprites, Jets and Elves which have only relatively recently been discovered.


      • Goodday Pointman!
        Ah, point taken and accepted.
        Not wanting to know an unknown can generate a Pandora’s box effect of effecting all other know factors.
        One change can generate cascade of change due to having no choice as all the other factors then become incorrect due to the interconnection that change can generate.

      • Careful mate. What you’re describing is a non-linear complex system. ie inherently unpredictable …


      • Wow,
        Your good! :-)

  4. “The fact that global warming estimates are uncertain, for example, has been used by many to argue against any action at the present time,” he said.”

    Well, yeah. Except that what is the ‘scientific consensus’ if not a marker of certainly? If your data are uncertain, but your conclusions are certain, there’s a problem. If someone could show me evidence that decadal planetary climate models are reliable to a reasonable certainty, I’d be happy to jump aboard the wagon. As it is, I understand the uncertainty of these models to be very high, so I do argue against any action.

    • One of more remarkable arguments I’ve seen deployed by consensus scientists and activists since Climategate (although it may have been in vogue before that) is that the greater the uncertainty one points to in any aspect of AGW theory one is told that aha, watch out, this means it’s all the more likely that really damaging warming and thus extreme events will occur. At which point the precautionary principle looms and sweeps all before it.

      How does that work, again? If we run it back in time, before Fourier did his work on the properties of CO2, presumably the idea that the product of increased burning of things in the industrial revolution would lead to global warming was much more uncertain that it is now. Is it logical to say they should have worried more about the future problem than we should do now?

      The point about quantifying uncertainty is surely central to science. The consequent input into policymaking is nothing like as clear to me.

  5. An uncertain combination of statistics or a statistical combination of uncertainties? Seems the former is a more apt description of those preaching the dogma of climate change, versus the science of studying the climate.

    • Mike,

      It goes to the distortion of science by who pays the bill. The current policy has leaned heavily on any AGW explainations to the research. Some researchers have openly admitted doing it for publishing stating ” It doesn’t hurt to throw AGW as the cause”.

  6. I would argue that there are differing magnitudes of uncertainty, and these tend to correlate with the field of science in question. In classical physics and most of chemistry, one can run a controlled experiment. In modern physics, one can usually do the same, even for quantum theory based physics. In area like climate science, astronomy, and cosmology one can’t. I would say that the results of classical physics and chemistry are on more solid ground than sciences for which controlled experiments cannot be created. Although there is always uncertainty, climate scientists have to admit theirs is greater than ones like physics and chemistry. Since the results are less certain, it is wise not to act too hastily on the results.

    • I don’t disagree entirely but I think it’s notable that high energy physics is beginning to move away from the big experiment, such as the Large Hadron Collider, to patient observation of the universe. Witness the excitement in Aug 09 about gamma-ray burst GRB090510 confirming the Lorentz invariance – or making its violation far less likely, I should no doubt say on this thread!

    • Just in passing one shouldn’t forget the social sciences as a case in point where uncertainty abounds – particularly around fundamental things like causality; repeatable experiments become more difficult as the system under study gains complexity; and where the imperative to “do something” is high.

      Its perhaps not surprising therefore that economists and statisticians are producing useful input into climate science.

      I’m also with Richard Drake on the point that there are diminishing returns in complexity, particularly when policy prescriptions are being called for.

  7. The physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University agreed. “In the public parlance, uncertainty is a bad thing, implying a lack of rigour and predictability. The fact that global warming estimates are uncertain, for example, has been used by many to argue against any action at the present time,” he said.

    Perhaps it’s me, but the first statement does not follow from the second. I’d say honest uncertainty, while not as satisfying as a definitive answer, is far, far better than dishonest certainty. I can certainly accept that the current level of knowledge on a subject is limited without any implication of incompetence. I cannot abide false certainty or playing word games to pretend to greater understanding than exists.

    A far more plausible explanation of the why uncertainty leads some to put off action is that not everyone shares the same tolerance for risk.

    • The problem is that scientists in one discipline tend to assume the rigour of their own process of discovery applies equally to all other disciplines. Unfortunately this is not the case.

  8. The word “model” seems to be abused quite a lot. A model is not a hypothesis that needs compared to hard data, which is what scientists actually should be doing. Neither is a model a data processing algorithm using proven, tested formulae, as Steve Mosher likes to pretend. Neither can statistical smoothing a model – it remains just smoothing.

    A model is an attempted simulation of reality and it constantly needs compared to reality or it becomes surreal, like a Dali painting. It is doubtful whether a modeler is even a scientist. While scientists can certainly be modelers, there is a preponderance of maths graduates in this climate circus who like to pretend that running models is akin to experimentation. Well sorry but it just isn’t! An experiment attempts to investigate what isn’t known, while a model only attempts to simulate what is known. Trying to simulate the unknown can either be called a futile endeavour or modern art.

    Therefore the argument posited is not well posed!

    • I am afraid that you are trying to define a model in terms so narrow that it cannot exist. The term is actually quite broad. Maxwell used a mental model of ropes and pulleys to develop this equations. You might want to refine your argument.

      Also, experiments do not usually investigate what is not known. They usually are controlled situations designed to test a specific hypothesis, which may also be called a model.

      • Well my excuse is that simulation modeling is my job. But if you talk about models and climate science then those uncertainties refer to the input parameters to GCM’s, and so with respect to climate they should be using the same narrow definition as I do.

        Instead the waters are severly muddied by suggesting any vague notion can be called a model and it might be very wrong but that’s ok because it isn’t finalised. The big unjustifiable leap was to imply therefore that we needn’t worry about climate model input uncertainties.

        As noted above they performed the same semantic bait and switch on the word “truth”.

        The precise definition of what is meant is important or otherwise we’re Humpty Dumpties. If Maxwell ever used the word “model” then he must have been asked to qualify his definitions and he wouldn’t have suggested that an error (bug) in his model was actually a feature, because that is just arrant nonsense.

      • You will be better off criticizing specific climate modeling practices, rather than trying to warp the word to your own use. I myself use a disease model to study scientific communication. I am not simulating anything. As generally used today a model is simply applied math running on a computer.

        Nor does the primary uncertainty in the GCMs lie with the input parameters. It lies with our lack of understanding of climate change, especially the natural drivers. Entire equations are missing, because we have yet to discover them.

        But I have not heard anyone claiming that climate model errors are irrelevant just because it is merely a model. The models are almost all the support that CAGW has, so everyone takes them very seriously. Your whole argument seems off the mark to me.

      • When experimenting between competing hypotheses, as we usually are, then the truth surely remains unknown until the end (hopefully) of the experiment. Unless it’s a verification. In the case of unvalidated climate model runs the truth is still not known so it isn’t much of an experiment. And no, backcasting isn’t validation either.

      • written like a good engineer should

      • Indeed. As I see it the great public confusion over the models is that between science and engineering (I am both). Scientists use models to play with hypotheses, and anything goes. Using models to claim to predict or project the future for public policy purposes is engineering, which has entirely different standards of acceptability from science. The problem is that the scientific acceptability of the climate models is being interpreted as engineering (and hence policy) acceptability, which is very false.

        Science does not tell us how to do what we want to do, engineering (including medicine) does that.

      • There is a level at which all theory can be regarded as a “model” of reality, and hypothesis testing is comparing empirical data with those models (and if that data is well behaved enough statistical models can be used to test the fit between the data and the theory).

        Also there is a misapprehension that good science is all about hypothesis testing. It’s having the right hypothesis that really makes the difference IMHO, and doing that well is hard to capture and bottle.

        However doing the hard yards and testing your hypotheses is essential. If anything climate science seems to have too many hypotheses of average quality and not enough tests.

    • The last thing that has been presented in the general discussion of AGW in the public square is uncertainty.
      Instead, dangerous climate change, for over 20 years, has been promised in an unquestioned way daily. It is only in the fringes, at first, that any idea that Hansen, Gore, Suzuki, etc. could be wrong.
      The reality, that nothing much has actually happened; that each and every hysterical claim that THIS event is proof of AGW fails under the most modest of reviews, adds up after a decade or two.
      Trenberth’s most recent bilge- that Australian floods are *proof* of AGW- utterly fails when one bothers to look at the record: This flood event is not even in the top 5 of the brief history of Australian weather records.
      Yet Trenberth is pretending that he is unquestionable and that those who dare disagree are wicked and beneath contempt.
      I would suggest that the people who deserve contempt are not the skeptics.

  9. Krauss seems to be confusing simple margin of error with true scientific uncertainty of the “we don’t know” variety. It is not that global warming estimates are uncertain, it is that we don’t believe them.

    Nor is it true that “Being able to quantify uncertainty, and incorporate it into models, is what makes science quantitative, rather than qualitative.” On the contrary, true uncertainty is impossible to quantify. Moreover, what makes science quantitative is that we measure stuff, which has nothing to do with uncertainty. That much should be obvious.

    • Quite so, David. But with climate “science” we have a problem. All that distinguishes climate “science” from the disparate fields from which it recruits its practitioners is statistics. Climate “science” ought, therefore to be practised by people who are good at physics, or whatever, but excellent at statistics. In fact it is practised by people who are indifferent at physics, and rubbish at statistics. And once bad statistics invades a field the, in the absence of Rutherfordian scepticism (“you should have thought of a better experiment”), it quickly erects a logical edifice which obscures the null hypothesis. So half the time these clowns genuinely don’t know when they are seeing a real signal or not. Statistics has given them “null-hypothesis amnesia”.

      • Tom, Tom, Tom,

        Many times you have critisized for what ye know not due to the educational training you have received that bound you to laws, no questions asked.
        Individualized and specialized science miss many factors outside the confines they impose.
        What experimantal perameters were broken to achieve the results?
        It does make a difference where you are on this planet doing an experiment(ops, that is general science and not truthful science).

      • Tom, I see no evidence that the people in climate science are inferior to the people in other sciences. Climate science draws upon a lot of other sciences, including physics and statistics. One cannot ask that climate scientists also be experts in these other fields. After all, the people in these other fields are not also experts in climate science. Knowledge has fairly severe limits.

  10. Morley Sutter

    I agree with James G. The term model is rather glibly used. All models must be appropriately and adequately tested. Models are of several types and their relation to the passage of time often differs. Models can be physical (mechanical or chemical, including biochemical, electronic or some combination); or they can be mathematical/computer. Whatever their makeup they must be tested. The testing usually involves a prediction, a test of immediate behaviour (whether a contraption flies) or a prediction that some event will occur in future. In each case the behaviour of the phenomenon concerned can be reliably tested only in real time appropriate to the phenomenon being studied. If the future is involved in the model, then tests must wait for the future. The worth of any model depends on adequate testing. Computers cannot get around this problem. I wish climate scientists would acknowledge the requirements for testing models as a source of uncertainty.

  11. The odd thing that many advocates for action cannot seem to grasp is that at the political level, the argument for action is already overwhelmingly accepted. Arguments from skeptics whether about uncertainty or anything else have actually had almost zero effect to delegates in Bali, Copenhagen or Cancun or to politicians, most of whom are sympathetic to the angst-ridden, pessimists.

    The reason action is not happpening is that nobody truly neither believes the supposed cure is better than the original disease. Everyone wants only what is best for their own economy and the affluent countries quickly work out that climate “action” isn’t it. It is all therefore mere politically-correct posturing – a bit like similar gestures of promising billions in aid for disaster relief or development and actually giving next to nothing.

    Nobody lost because of skeptics or arguments about uncertainty but quite simply because reality bites. Viable replacements to fossil fuels are just not yet here. If they were it would have all gone just like the Montreal Protocol.

    Therefore my personal message to these odd activist-Physicists would be “less activism, more Physics”. When they come up with an energy alternative that doesn’t do more harm than good then that “action” they desire will happen quite quickly and by industry, not by politicians. If however their real agenda is anti-industrialism, then I don’t expect much from them except more hot air of this type.

    • I agree that the scientific arguments are not the cause of the political failure, but these arguments are still very important. If the science were settled the politicians might have no choice but to act.

      • David–even if the science was “settled” the same “solutions” do not/would not make sense for each country.

      • If the science were settled the politicians might have no choice but to act.

        Or not act.

    • I suggest that there are productive alternatives available today, but they have not yet been adopted due to a combination of ignorance and bias. The technology is modern nuclear power generation.

      These technologies (thorium, 3rd & 4th generation conventional) have very little waste, are safe, do not emit GHG’s and can be low cost. (assuming the government standardizes safe designs and then greatly reduces the non value added bureaucratic approval process that delays construction and increases costs). Building large numbers of these facilities to standard designs, would be good for the economy both in the short term for employment and in the long term for reduction of the need to buy petroleum.

      I am unable to understand why more environmentally concerned people are not calling for these to be built. It seems an obvious area of agreement of people on all sides of the climate issue.

      • How about fusion, Rob?

      • It ould be wonderful if it was something that could be implemented in the next few years, but it is not. What I support practical solutions. I am all for industry researching fusion.

      • Thorium reactors are being developed but they aren’t ready yet. It isn’t due to ignorance or bias, it just takes time.


        I’ve been musing that if nuclear technology was “the answer” then they’d be using nuclear-powered ships. Every attempt to do so has failed due to costs compared with conventional fuels, well apart from the Russians and the US Navy, ie it clearly still needs hefty subsidies.

        The point was though the false idea being promulgated to vilify skeptics for halting any “action”. They didn’t! Reality did. I mean if someone doesn’t realise that simple truth then what does it say about their own cognitive abilities? Yet they try to lecture the rest of us about cognitive toolkits.

      • James- I believe you are incorrect as to why nuclear reactors are not used on large commercial ships. It is (or has been):
        1. an issue of not wanting the technology proliferated

        2, To reduce the risk of the waste being used for anti-societal means.

        3. Lack of maintenance facilities for the technology away from home ports. (again associated with trying to protect proliferation of the technology

        The situation is different for electrical generation.

        Thorium is cutting edge but imo could go into production very near term if government regulators did not do everything possible to delay construction to such a degree that there is to much risk to finance the design/construction. It also appears that modern (late 3rd or 4th generation conventional plants) have also reduced the waste concern vastly.

        I suggest that with changes in government policy that these types of facilities could be under construction in less than 24 months.


      • That’s what I get for relying on Wikipedia. They say it was on economic grounds.

        I must say I worry about proliferation too. Much of the time that and the waste storage issue are just brushed aside by nuclear avocates. I thought it wasn’t much of an issue with Thorium but apparently it is.

    • Given their present level of infrastructure construction, how soon would you expect action out of India or China?

      • China and India are acting today. As expected, they are acting in their national self interest.

        China is getting better/good at public relations on the topic. Also, look at the recent announcements from India. Something to the effect that they will seek to reduce their CO2 growth to a percentage less than their GDP growth per capita. That is propaganda, not commitment to implementing a policy to eliminate CO2 from the planet.

        I am not blaming either/any country from acting in its own best interest when the best science says the potential climate impacts are quite long term and not necessarily negative in the long term. On top of that it is unknown if the actions taken today will even positively affect the climate for more than 100 years.

      • Global nuclear build capacity was one reactor every 4 weeks in 2010 up from one reactor every 8 weeks in 2005.

        China is taking 2/3rds of those reactors, with reactor construction starts every 6 weeks.

        To reverse their coal consumption trend they need to get to a build rate of a one reactor start every 1-2 weeks.

        Doubling construction rate every 5 years would be optimistic. So 6 to 3 to 1.5 we would be looking at a 2020 peak in China coal consumption.

        The peak may come sooner as China is also plans to max out wind(200GW) and hydro(400GW) prior to 2020.

        Even the most ardent supporters of nuclear power would agree that having trained staff with advanced degrees in nuclear engineering and a number of years of actual operating experience on duty 24/7 at a nuclear power station is an absolute MUST.

        So spinning up training programs is also a significant hurdle to jump.

        I believe the Scandinavians had to pull a nuclear PHd out of retirement once they decided to abandon their plans to close all their nuclear plants because they had absolutely no one in the ‘future nuclear operator’ pipeline.

        India was under a Uranium Embargo until this year. They are further ahead of China in actual operating nuclear reactors, but they shelved build plans due to a lack of a source of Uranium. There is also considerably more political resistance to nuclear power in India then China.

      • Harry

        It is not an issue of the capacity to build nuclear plants. Capacity to build components is easily raised when there is an economic need for those parts. It takes some non recurring investment and a few months but manufacturing capacity to build the facilities is not the limitation.

        Your point below is more of an issue”
        “Even the most ardent supporters of nuclear power would agree that having trained staff with advanced degrees in nuclear engineering and a number of years of actual operating experience on duty 24/7 at a nuclear power station is an absolute MUST.”

        I have zero financial interest in the nuclear industry, so I would not describe myself as an “ardent supporter” but I would disagree with your statement above.

        Having someone with advanced degrees in nuclear engineering present when OPERATING a facility is a meaningless regulatory requirement. Having someone extremely well trained in the operation of the facilities is essential. That type of training is different and specialized and can be completed so as not to delay operation if society desires it to be done.

      • Rob –
        Your last point is exactly right. When NASA first started launching spacecraft, only holders of a PhD were considered to be qualified for the launch/operations crews. That lasted for less than a year.

        The next step was that only PhDs were suitable to be shift supervisors. That lasted even less time. Those with PhD’s don’t particularly like working rotating shifts. Especially when better jobs are available. And truthfully, the PhDs weren’t very good at the operations side of the business. There was one who was shocked when I wandered into the control center on a cold snowy Christmas Eve, looked at what he was doing and asked why he was killing the spacecraft. He was – and he did, under orders from management. But he didn’t know “what” he was doing – or why. Not putting them down – they were just better at other things.

        Today, few spacecraft operators have more than a BS. And it takes no more time to train them than it did to train the PhDs. But it’s still not short or easy – and a single mistake “can” kill a $1 Bn program.

      • Rob,

        Various nuclear industry source have stated that the Chinese have $500 billion in their nuclear build budget, enough for 245 reactors. Yet the Chinese government doesn’t expect to have more then 80 GW online by 2020.

        Japan Steel Works started work to triple nuclear core forging capacity from 4 per year in 2008 to 12 per year in 2012.
        Japan Steel makes 80% of the worlds nuclear core forgings.

        Forging a 600 ton alloy steel ingot into a pressure vessel without creating stress fractures is a very sophisticated manufacturing technique.

        As far as training, go look around the US commercial nuclear facilities and try to find someone that didn’t spend significant time tending to a nuclear reactor on a US Navy Nuclear vessel . The Chinese don’t have a big nuclear submarine fleet from which to draw experienced staff like the US did.

        Even with the advantage of having a ready pool of trained staff courtesy of the US Navy, we never averaged building more then 6 reactors per year. The Chinese are putting the shovel in the ground on 8 reactors per year.

        Where are they going to get the experienced staff?

        Financial incentive helps, and the financial incentives are surely in place for the Chinese to have a very significant nuclear build out.

        Experienced staff takes time.


      • Ok, the Chinese want a total of 245 plants and they will have 80 operational by 2020. That does not mean they could not go faster. They set their plans based on a variety of limitations. A major limitation for the Chinese today is the ability to manage the vast amount of development in the country.

        The manufacturing processes you describe are the same as used in the aerospace industry (my field); and trust me; they could be built at a higher rate. Developing additional forging capacity only takes about a year.

        Getting an experienced staff is also a very manageable issue. Having experience on a nuclear submarine is really not critical. The design and operation of these facilities is completely different, All personnel would have to be trained for the new facilities. Their training would be extensive and specific to their job function. It would be most likely that those currently working at existing commercial nuclear electricity generation facilities would have some desirable experience.

        If the US government undertook the program I suggest (building a significant numbers of these facilities) then the training would be very manageable. You would embark to train a key staff who then would train others, etc. You would have extensive certification for each critical job function. It would be perfect for the current economy.

      • Having been around the nuclear industry for a large share of my working years, I can say that people with advanced degrees are not a necessary part of an operating staff at a nuclear power plant. The kind of personality and skill sets needed for power plant operation are specialized. The range of knowledge needed of physics for the operation of a specific nuclear reactor and generating plant is actually quite narrow. In fact, what is important is the exact physics of the specific reactor in very great detail. That is not something taught in a post graduate course. It can be learned only from extensive training on the reactor plant in use.

        Furthermore, a plant operator must be the kind of person who will learn every single system, pipe, valve, control, and indicator in the plant and know all the normal and operating procedures. That takes a special kind of person and the percentage of operators with even engineering degrees is low.

        Training for nuclear plant operation is not like attending college. Class time is 8 hours a day or more, 5 days a week, all on the specifics of the plant the training covers. By the end of training, a nuclear plant operator can and does visualize in his head how every system is performing and interacting simply by glancing at control panel gauges and indicators. In many ways, a shade tree mechanic could be a better candidate for becoming a good reactor operator than a college graduate.

        As for the cost of nuclear power plants. Currently, most of the cost of the plant is not in the materials or construction. It is in the cost of money borrowed to survive the torturous licensing process.

      • Gary –
        In fact, what is important is the exact physics of the specific reactor in very great detail. That is not something taught in a post graduate course. It can be learned only from extensive training on the reactor plant in use.

        Back in the early 60’s I worked for Nunzio Palladino – and took his post grad reactor design courses. And he taught all of that – from the design end. And you’d best have known every single system, pipe, valve, control, and indicator as well as the materials, their response to temp, steam, whatever – and their operation. Not to mentions the core characteristics and performance.

        But you’re right – that’s still not actual reactor operation. Ops is a different world. I got to that later.

      • harry –
        So 6 to 3 to 1.5 we would be looking at a 2020 peak in China coal consumption.

        Don’t bet the farm on that. You didn’t mention that the Chinese are also building 130 coal plants per yer – on a ten year plan. I don’t think they’re building them just so they can replace them with nukes.

      • Oops I think I derailed the thread :)

    • James I suspect that deep down a lot of the political and “citizen” camp-followers of CAGW know that their catastrophism is little more than a fashion statement, a lifestyle choice, and not one made in response to any real threat. They aren’t particularly concerned, notwithstanding their protestations, to procure “action”, merely to perpetuate the sense of virtue their protestations give them.

  12. The incompleteness of knowledge and the acceptance that it will never become complete and absolute is a basic tenet of scientific thinking. There are only different levels of accuracies of and different levels of trust in the knowledge. Some things are very well established and expected to remain parts of scientific knowledge also in the future, but even these things may be generalized or improved without making the earlier knowledge fully invalid.

    Classifying in more detail the proper scientific methods or telling, how the accuracy of quantitative results should be interpreted and expressed is actually problematic in all science as all methods involve some subjectivity, even in situations, where nobody is worried about such problems. All attempts of defining science or proper scientific methods have turned out to fail in some situations. It is easier to tell, whether particular activities are good science than to formulate definitions that would draw properly a line separating science from non-science. My impression is that every definition that has been proposed fails miserably in some particular situations.

    These fundamental problems of defining science or scientific uncertainties is, however, not the real problem of climate change policies. The real problems are much more practical. Claiming that the problems could be solved by determining better the level of scientific knowledge is a fallacy that is dear to many people on both sides of the political fighting. There are people on both sides, who think that they will finally win by proving that they are right about science, but that is really a fallacy.

    By this I do not mean that scientific knowledge is not important, it is. Although it is important it does not by itself tell, what should be done, or how to convince others that it is the right way forward. It is, however, very bad for good decision-making that all active parties have been misusing science. This has made from perfectly valid scientific knowledge something it is not.

    The issues of handling risks or applying precautionary principle are very complicated. Many studies have found that people present contradictory statements when asked, how to behave, when confronted by risks. The issues are actually so complicated that the science cannot help far in giving good answers. It may be able to prove that certain things are illogical, but it cannot tell, what is the right choice. It is not uncommon that theoretical thinking leads even further from rational choices that the intuition of non-scientists. One typical error seems presently to be the inability of seeing, how many essential factors cannot be taken into account in the policy choices proposed in the UNFCCC process. Too many people are trying to solve now just one single climate problem.

    • Pekka,
      You are correct.
      The problem we have now is that the system is totally closed to any outsider who does not have a degree. So, anyone without a degree cannot have a brain to think and reason and develop new technologies.
      I moved ahead in science not from the current system but from a creation that defies the current physic laws.
      You have no idea the conflict of trying to follow current laws to having something that defied them.
      Interestly enough, engineers will tell you if the mechanics work but have no clue to the physics that surround the mechanics. Power generation are interested if you have a manufacturer. The manufacturer is NOT interested as he will lose money as 18 less turbines are needed.
      So, the unexplored science of rotation and centrifugal force was not hard to understand and incorporate into planetary studies.

    • Pekka,
      What made this creation so powerful?
      A regular rotates in the confine of a full circle.
      I split the energy in that full circle and harnessed on the circumference of that full circle.

  13. The magnitude of the uncertainty is the rub. A coin toss is not that useful. A paper indicating a useful uncertainty only to find the true uncertainty is a coin toss, is an embarrassment. Most of the problems I have with climate change research is overly optimistic confidence intervals.

    • Well said!

    • Would that be the Knutson hurricane papers by any chance? Funny how the only 70% confidence result was that there would be fewer hurricanes overall. The 50:50 chance of more Cat 4/5 hurricanes were front page news when they could equally have forecast a 50:50 chance of fewer. Uncertainty wasn’t mentioned in the press release so nobody noticed.

  14. Still looking in the wrong place. When scientists start talking about the philosophy of science, and the scientific method (only to define their critics as being outside the pale) you know they don’t know what they are doing. More specifically, the “leading brains” of edge.org are not the true leaders; they are self-proud, and already obsolete. They are all following the reigning paradigm into ever-increasing failure. They responded to this year’s question with statements about public misunderstandings and the “nature of scientific doubt”, simply because they don’t have the imagination and discipline to think outside the narrow limits of that failing paradigm, nor to follow the truth wherever it shows itself. They don’t want to believe that outsiders can come up with ideas that trump their own self-certain speculations. David Wojick’s comments here are apropos. I have found new, certain knowledge through my research — it’s called discovery AND verification, and is what scientists are supposed to do, it’s their PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY; “learn to love uncertainty” is the cry of those who staked too much on a false certainty (in a false paradigm) and in their self-pride, and cannot face the fact that they bet wrong.

  15. I’ll be very surprised if climate scientists and climate change advocates take up the call to acknowledge uncertainty, even though it would shore up their credibility in the medium- to long-term.

    The problem of course is the necessity they believe that drastic, expensive changes must be put in force ASAP, as opposed to waiting for more data and a better track record with forecasts.

  16. “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’. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain: because the good scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better elements of evidence, or novel arguments emerge. Therefore certainty is not only something of no use, but is in fact damaging, if we value reliability.”

    I’m with THIS guy. And his comments certainly don’t square with the ridiculous “science is settled” crap which is constantly eminating from the loudspeakers of the leading climate scientists. Yes?? Those folks are at the bottom of a very deep hole, and they just keep digging!!!! It is actually very funny and is getting funnier day by day. Just wait until the dreaded conservatives force them to testify under oath! Shades of Watergate??

  17. The assumptions that go into the current methods of estimating uncertainty are absolutely untenable in many fields (due to the nature of the data). Still, mainstream conventional culture insists that such misleading estimates be produced and regarded as meaningful.

    I’ve taught stats fundamentals full-time year-round to thousands of students. In my earliest days, my teaching mentor, a wise man with more common sense than most, insisted that my teaching & marking focus be on ensuring that students develop deep conceptual understanding of fundamentals. This approach sharply contrasted with that of colleagues in a field (Stats) where students are almost never encouraged to think critically & realistically about untenable assumptions that underpin VERY elaborate algorithms.

    My experience of the field:
    It exists in an abstract vacuum.

    Basing policy on completely abstract information is patently foolhardy.

    In a context where complexity renders assumptions underpinning statistical inference absolutely untenable (e.g. many areas of ecology, climate science, etc.), the sensible thing to do is stick to data exploration (without pretending that statistical inference is meaningful in such contexts). My impression is that many in the mainstream are too scared to run against established tradition towards sensible conduct. A worse problem than that: Many simply do not seem to even realize their assumptions are untenable. (It is dangerous having the latter group in leadership roles.)

    Many bright people simply don’t spend the time necessary to become consciously aware of assumptions that are routinely made implicitly (e.g. falling into the pit of Simpson’s Paradox by spatially summarizing spatiotemporal series and treating them as temporal without exploring the sensitivity of parameter estimates to grain & extent).

    What climate science presently appears to need is not more untenable statistical inference, but rather FAR more careful data exploration (which may take decades). Meaningful statistical inference necessarily follows sensible, careful, thorough data exploration (no matter how long the latter takes).

    Those who INSIST on premature & unsupportable statistical tests based on absolutely untenable assumptions have become a complex hazard to sensible collective reasoning.

  18. Not much point learning to love Uncertainty, without learning to love the tools of decision-making under Uncertainty.

    The chief of these tools commonly mentioned is the Precautionary Principle, although it is far from the only, indeed barely a blip on the radar, way decision-makers rationally deal with Uncertainty.

    Given the widespread antipathy for the Precautionary Principle (And why not? The general presentation of this concept is so limited and slanted as to render it inoperable.) among many groups, lauding Uncertainty is likely to have less than no impact one way or the other.

    Of course, the Uncertainty of that prediction is large.

    Perhaps if a guest poster could cover the Game Theoretical approaches to Uncertainty, it might help explain how people tend to, and how people may best (two different things) deal with Uncertainty?

  19. IRT loving failure:
    I hope this is the year that the climate science consensus learns to love the idea that they have failed in a spectacular way by use of phony null theories (thanks, Dr. Trenberth), that they have done so at huge expense and opportunity cost, and that the logical lesson of failure: humbleness and reflection are embraced as well.
    I hope that the real lesson of uncertainty, tolerance, is taken to heart by the climate science consensus and that disgusting efforts like those by the AGU and NSF to impose thought police solutions to on skeptics are abandoned.

  20. Harold Pierce Jr

    Engineers hate uncertainity.

    • They hate it but they have to work with it.

    • Which doesn’t mean glibly misrepresenting it.

    • But there has never been an engineering project successfully completed where uncertainty was not factored into the plan.

    • Being an engineer myself, I’d have to agree with you.

      Engineers are usually looking for an actionable solution to a specific problem.

      This necessitates the elimination of as much “uncertainty” as possible.

      It also involves calculating in reasonable “safety factors” to avoid unpleasant surprises that could result where there is no “certainty”.

      Since engineers, unlike most research scientists, also have to concern themselves with costs, they have to walk the tightrope between “overdesigning” (a mistake that rarely shows up except in the cost) and “underdesigning” (a mistake, which will invariably show up – possibly even with disastrous consequences).


  21. Leaders of the scientific community have done a great disservice to science and to mankind by failing to recognize that science is about the process, not about the product. The journey. Not the destination.

    a.) Dogmatic science, like dogmatic religion, is an unpleasant way of life.

    b.) “Truthing” is a far more powerful, joyful and creative way of life.

    With kind regards,
    Oliver K. Manuel
    Former NASA Principal
    Investigator for Apollo

    • Oliver,
      You are sooooooo right!
      I found being a good guy in science and the commecial process, would ignore the discovery no matter how revolutionary it is.
      So, picking apart a law or theory to show it’s flaw became easy as they are too generalized into their individual boxes.
      But people like to have tradition and no matter how bad the science is, it has been passed down many years and grow upon many times.
      When you know where to look, a theory implodes because of the complexity that theory is trying to cover.

  22. Well, I’d say the biggest reason for scientists (in any field) to “love uncertainty” (as Judith puts it) is quite simply that it creates the need for more work to attempt to overcome this “uncertainty”.

    No “uncertainty” (i.e. “the science is settled”) = no need for further research work.

    A politician might make this blunder, but I seriously doubt that any serious scientist in a field as new and complex as “climate science” would be foolhardy enough to state “the science is settled”.


  23. The more complex the system becomes the more complex and unique the language used to describe it becomes. Ladies and germs, each ‘science’ is not only building upwards and onwards, it is also evolving into its own Tower of Babel (or – into unique galxcies moving farther and farther apart?).

    Our most limiting faculty is language. The barrier between the public and each of the sciences is the languages. Most of us are NOT on the same sheet of music.

  24. A decent read in this regard is Henry Pollack’s “Uncertain Science … Uncertain World” – written partly out of frustration in seeing new graduate students who had yet to come across uncertainty in their education, having received their knowledge as a series of textbook facts, and thus being completely unprepared to deal with issues relevant to research.

  25. Dr. Strangelove

    ‘What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?’

    I subscribe to Laplace who planned 200 yrs. ago “to reduce common sense to calculation” using probability theory and Bayesian logic. This is to test hypotheses using empirical data. Add to that statistical and multiple regression analyses. This is to find correlations among variables and infer causality. And a dose of Mintzberg’s epistemology:

    “All theories are false but they’re useful.”

    The flat earth theory is false but it’s good enough for shipbuilding. You don’t make allowances for the earth’s curvature when building ships. But the flat earth theory is not good for circum navigation. You need the round earth theory for that. But this theory is false too. Earth is not quite round. It bulges at the equator and it is uneven with land mass of varying elevations. If the earth is not quite flat, round or even even, you should doubt that other more complicated theories are true.

    “We don’t discover theories, that’s truth, we invent them.”

    The popular story of Columbus debating his critics whether the earth was round or flat is ridiculous. By the late 15th century, all educated Europeans believe the earth was round. The debate was about the size of the earth not its shape. And his critics were right. Columbus underestimated earth’s circumference. Despite all their debate, the truth is by the late 15th century nobody knew the earth was round.

  26. Here’s a great article in the context of the Tuscon shootings but touches on fundamental human tendencies that could be applied to the performance of science as well. I have read the author’s recently released book entitled “Future Babble” and recommended it to all.


    I am quite enjoying this “Edge World Question Center” as I had never heard of it. This entry in particular seems applicable in the context of climate science:


  27. One quite effective tactic used by climate contrarians is to beat up the uncertainty around the issue of climate science. In the popular mind uncertainty = doubt = no need to do anything!

    However, lets think about the practical problem, of which I had some recent close hand experience, of a river flood. Say the inhabitants of a city receive a warning that a 3 metre flooding is expected.

    In that case, flood defences can be accurately targeted. Areas which are, and are not, at risk will be precisely known.

    However, say the hydrologists aren’t quite sure and they say the floods could be anything between 1.5 and 4.5 metres. Is that better or worse?

    Of course the city could take a risk, assume that the flood will come in on the lower end of the scale. If their gamble pays off they will be better off afterwards. But, its more likely not to because the odds are well against that happening.

    On the other hand if an assumption is made that the flooding will be at the top end of the scale, effort will likely be wasted on trying to protect areas which won’t need it.

    If the city goes for the mid point then that will be about a 50-50 chance. That’s probably not the best assumption either. The cost of being wrong will probably outweigh the benefits of being right.

    The city would need to do a cost/risk analysis and they would probably end up assuming a figure of something like 4 metres.

    There is always a certain level of uncertainty but increased uncertainty isn’t better at all. It always ends up costing more in the end.

    • Tempterrain:One quite effective tactic used by climate contrarians is to beat up the uncertainty around the issue of climate science. In the popular mind uncertainty = doubt = no need to do anything!

      Equally of coure one quite effective tactic used by climate Believers is to beat down the uncertainty around the issue of climate science. In the popular mind low uncertainty = certainty = need to do something!

      Which is exactly what the ‘professionals’ seem to have been doing.

  28. Some of the scientists use uncertainty / certainty in the trivial sense, and use the trivial sense in a more general way as animplied argument for why uncertainty in decision making is a good thing. So what if there is no such thing as complete certainty – who cares? That’s more a critical thinking context. Ambiguity, of which uncertainty in the general sense used is a part, always makes decision making more perilous.

    Nobody needs to get quotes from scientists about the scientific method – the method(s) have been well documented. But this reporter managed to assemble quotes about the scientific method and global warming to apparently bolster public perception of the research area.