science is uncertainty

a man wearing a mask in 1918
image credit: Western Neighborhoods Project/OpenSFHistory

We all want answers today, and science is not going to give them. Science is uncertainty. And the pace of uncertainty reduction in science is way slower than the pace of a pandemic.
~ Brian Nosek
(The Washington Post, May 26, 2020)

I’ve been thinking about scientists a lot lately, beacuse of the pandemic, so when I read the above quote in the newspaper about “the pace of uncertainty reduction in science” it caught my attention. I remember my father teaching me that whenever science finds an “answer” it only brings more questions into focus. The more scientists learn, the more they appreciate how much they still don’t know.

Experiment, observe and gather data. Make educated guesses and investigate some more. My father spent his entire research career studying chicken viruses. It’s kind of astonishing that there could be so much to learn about just one kind of virus. Years and years of probing and analysis.

My father at work at the University of Connecticut,
sometime in the 1960s
~ photo by Thommie White, my grandmother

As far as I can tell, the scientists studying the coronavirus pandemic have been very candid about what they still don’t know. Yet, their best guess is that wearing a mask makes sense because it will likely protect other people from you if you happen to have the virus (with no symptoms) and are spreading it without realizing it. Combined with social distancing and frequent hand-washing, this is our best strategy for slowing down the spread of COVID-19 for now. Rest assured scientists are still searching for answers, hoping to reduce the uncertainty as soon as humanly possible!

15 thoughts on “science is uncertainty”

  1. Thinking back to college I remember being taught that you can never know what is for sure, only what isn’t; therefore doubt is what generates scientific discoveries. Not that I’m against certainty– or scientists finding a way to stop COVID-19 in its tracks.

    1. Without a doubt, doubt is a most important impetus for discoveries in science. 🙂 Stopping COVID-19 in its tracks is a worthy goal but when I consider how 32 million people have died from AIDS with no vaccine or permanent cure in sight it leaves me feeling very doubtful. Maybe the best we can hope for is to manage it somehow… I desperately hope I am wrong!

  2. Great picture of your dad! I totally agree with your strategy. Another part of having to tolerate this uncertainty is that actions have to be taken before we have any pat answers, because of what your quote said (I haven’t read the article it’s from). I think understanding and tolerating uncertainty is something that perhaps most people have a very hard time with. From our talks, I think you understand it!

    1. Thanks, Susan! Well, I think I can often be pretty Zen about uncertainty but then the universe sends a monkey wrench into my life. Something bit me on my belly, my face and my ankle six days ago and I’m terribly uncertain about what the culprit might be. It’s driving me crazy. At first I assumed it was a spider but after consulting others and hours of internet research I’ve narrowed it down to fleas or chiggers. I think. The itching is unbearable!!! A tele-med visit with my doctor might be in my future.

      1. I hope you take yourself up on your telemed idea. Why would you have PI on your belly? Let the doctor figure it out and suggest meds.

  3. I often feel like I’m living in the dark ages with the low level of research and understanding we (and scientists, medics, etc) have of anything. We’ve still not got a cure for the common cold, how do we expect to find one – particularly in such a short time – for a new virus? But despite my pessimism, I still retain a degree of optimism. Mostly in ourselves and our relationships with each other. Be well, Barbara. Hugs.

    1. I am thinking along the same lines, Val. They keep saying that coronaviruses often cause the common cold and they have no vaccine for those yet, so…. I read one article that suggested that a day might come when it will be common practice for grandchildren to be tested for their COVID-19 status before going to visit their grandparents. Difficult to imagine what the future might hold. Stay safe and be well, my friend. *hugs*

    1. Oh Larisa, I had a good laugh (at your expense) when I read your comment. We’ve had this conversation before! When you were VERY busy around the time Finn was born I read “Lab Girl” and wrote a review about it.

      At some point after that you read the book and recommended it to me and I directed you to my review and we laughed about it then. And now, déjà vu! Oh how motherhood takes its toll on our memories!

      I remember how astonished my sister and I were when we brought up our memories of our gerbil pets in conversation and my mother could not remember for the life of her us ever having gerbils in the house.

      Anyhow, Hope Jahren has a new book, “The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here,” which I’ve ordered and am looking forward to reading. ♡

  4. As some of the others have said–what a great picture of your dad. Thoughtful exploration of scientists working hard to figure things out.

    1. Thank you, Kathy. I was so happy to find this picture of my dad in my grandmother’s collection. He did work hard. Sometimes he went back to the lab after supper to check on his experiments. I remember being in bed, waiting for his car to come back down the driveway on those nights. 🙂 Other nights he played the piano, lulling us to sleep…

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