mary_catherine_bateson's picture
Professor Emerita, George Mason University; Visiting Scholar, Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College; Author, Composing a Further Life
The Illusion of Certainty


Scientists sometimes resist new ideas and hang on to old ones longer than they should, but the real problem is the failure of the public to understand that the possibility of correction or disproof is a strength and not a weakness. We live in an era when it is increasingly important that the voting public be able to evaluate scientific claims and be able to make analogies between different kinds of phenomena, but this can be a major source of error. The process by which scientific knowledge is refined is largely invisible to the public. The truth-value of scientific knowledge is dependent upon its openness to correction, yet we all carry around ideas that science has long since revised—and are disconcerted when asked to abandon them. Surprise: you will not necessarily drown if you go swimming after lunch.


A blatant example is the role of competition in evolution, which is treated by many as a scientifically established law of nature, and often taken for granted by economists and psychologists...at the same time that others argue that evolution, being a "theory" is no more than a "guess." Biology has been steadily giving increasing recognition to the importance of symbiosis in evolution, alongside competition, as well as diversification that by-passes competition, but "the survival of the fittest," a metaphor drawn by Darwin from the description of early industrial society by Herbert Spencer, survives as a binding metaphor for human behavior.

Most people are not comfortable with the notion that knowledge can be authoritative, can call for decision and action, and yet be subject to constant revision, because they tend to think of knowledge as additive, not recognizing the necessity of reconfiguring in response to new information. It is precisely this characteristic of scientific knowledge that encourages the denial of climate change and makes it so difficult to respond to what we do know in a context where much is still unknown. 

What kind of evidence will convince the doubters of the reality of what might best be called climate disruption? Perhaps the exploration of scientific ideas in need of retirement should be an annual event, with a clear emphasis on the fact that each new synthesis of complex data is potentially more inclusive. Retiring concepts that no longer fit is not primarily a matter of eliminating error but of integrating new information and newly recognized connections into our understanding.