Noyce Conference Room
  US Mountain Time
Stuart Firestein (Columbia University; SFI)

The uncertainty paradox. Can science make uncertainty optimistic?

Abstract:  From the beginnings of modern science there has been a love-hate relationship between it and society.  We currently find ourselves in one of those rough patches where a significant portion of the general public’s attitude towards science ranges from ambivalent to malevolent. Can we identify the source(s) of this problem and can we think of ways to fix it?

I frame this as a communication problem, but one that has deep roots in the nature and practice of science itself.

For all that has been written about the practice of science and its relation to society a fundamental ingredient is rarely if ever mentioned – optimism. Science is a fundamentally optimistic enterprise pursued by optimistic (or mad) people and it generates optimism in societies that embrace it. 

I am not however referring to the common psychological view of optimism as a cheery disposition, but rather as a philosophical perspective. One goal in this talk, and the book that I am working on, is to complicate the idea of optimism.  I will briefly trace the surprisingly recent history of optimism and its connection to the development of science and the idea of progress.

For the bulk of the talk I would like to examine, with the members of SFI, the transformation of science and its inherent optimism from the deterministic science of Newton, Maxwell, et al., through the middle of the 19th century to a second scientific revolution beginning with Darwinian Evolution and progressing through physics, chemistry and other sciences to a universe riding atop a foundation of fundamental and absolute uncertainty. I propose that the science of uncertainty and irreducible complexity is even more optimistic than the deterministic science that preceded it. 

To return to the beginning theme, if uncertainty is indeed a more optimistic perspective how can this be effectively communicated to a general public? 

A critical issue in science communication today is that anti scientific movements adopt the trappings of science making the age-old demarcation problem – distinguishing real from pseudo science — more problematic than ever.  Can uncertainty be that demarcation factor which cannot be faked by charlatans or other nefarious players?

Research Collaboration
SFI Host: 
David Krakauer and Caitlin McShea