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Science’s Beautiful Uncertainty

Two months ago, I got a very nerdy science tattoo. I’d been debating the tattoo for a couple of years, but of course, no sooner had my new ink finally healed, than a high-profile new study emerged revising the numbers I’d just permanently engraved on my skin.

My first instinct was to run back to the tattoo parlor to have some footnotes added. But then I remembered that, no matter how inaccurate science later proved my tattoo to be, it still represented a historically fundamental idea in oceanography. As a teaching tool, it would never die.

This realization prompted a lively discussion at departmental Happy Hour a couple of weeks ago as we enumerated all the ways you could scientifically date yourself with a tattoo. For example, what if you’d been an early 20th century geek with the plum pudding model of the atom on your pectoral? Or you’d pre-dated Copernicus with sketches of the sun orbiting the Earth?

Biology is a field full of models iteratively amended or discarded. The very structure of DNA – so fundamental to our contemporary understanding of genetics – was solved just sixty years ago; the evolutionary tree of life seems to undergo dramatic revisions every other day. (Over the weekend, my Dad had shocking news for me about the relative positioning of sponges and comb jellies. Clearly, he and I share some genetic predispositions for nerdiness.)

“We really stand on the shoulders of giants, don’t we?” I said to Dad. “Evolution makes so much sense as a framework to build on. But without Darwin, I’d be floundering around trying to fit the pieces together.”

Dad agreed. “Sometimes,” he said, “I remind myself that science is ‘non-sense.’ Not of our senses. Like Galileo’s work. The idea of the Earth orbiting the sun is all backwards compared to the evidence we see – this small ball that moves from side to side of our world.”

“Yeah,” I said, “Sometimes I don’t think I understand it – not really.”

“I guess your next tattoo will be string theory, then,” Dad quipped.

I think what Dad and I – and so many scientists – love about our field is that very feeling of stretching beyond the bounds of our own understanding. We relish the mystery, the discovery. We embrace the risk of being wrong because we know that our work is inherently a process of guess-and-check, of revision and re-revision. We record data and collect facts, but fitting them together into a model of how the world works is the true challenge.

It’s a challenge we must face with care. In his final lecture to our graduate biochemistry class at MIT, Professor Frank Solomon told us that our greatest task was gaining the wisdom to know when we were wrong. How, he asked, would we know when one scientific model had to be discarded in favor of another? Would we have been early adopters of plate tectonics theory? Would we have listened to Barbara McClintock’s evidence for transposable elements?

Science, he reminded us, is not about ego, not about being right. It’s about collecting evidence, measuring uncertainty, and keeping the unknown at the front of our minds. Scientific discovery, I sometimes think, is like falling in love. It’s simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying, and all we crave is more time to try to figure things out.

But there’s never enough time. We often need to make policy decisions with “the best information available.” And no matter how good that information is, the very process of science compels us to acknowledge that it is incomplete.

So, when we are asked about climate change, ecosystem recovery, or a chemical’s health hazards, we answer with probabilities and percentages. These must not be very satisfying answers to a Gulf Coast homeowner, a wildlife manager, or a worried mother. Especially when advocacy groups and lobbyists are eager to tug on the heartstrings with anecdotes and slogans.

But they are still the best answers.

They are the answers that allow us to understand, rather than ricochet aimlessly from one extreme viewpoint to another. They are the answers that allow us to quantify, and to see in shades of gray.

And after all, that’s what we humans are good at. From price tags to relationships to career choices, most aspects of our lives involve uncertainty and analysis. Thus, we’re all capable of being students of science – of weighing evidence, changing our minds, and making educated decisions. And we should take pride in that, even if it means explaining the scientific foibles of our latest tattoo.

Holly welcomes questions, comments, and hypothesis testing at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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Holly Moeller

Holly Moeller

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).