August 15, 2022

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Today’s uncertainty is part of science – Chronicle


Minerva *

Science is the only tool available to mankind to confront the crises of the modern era (environment, health, energy). However, for more than a century, science has become a possibility. The study, analysis and estimation of natural, social and human phenomena have become statistics and with it uncertainty plays a major role. Every analysis, study, forecast (but it would be better to use the verb “to estimate”) carries the burden of uncertainty and error. A mistake scientists know how to evaluate but sometimes forget to do. They always forget to communicate. Moreover, the outcome of the study depends on the experimental or observational conditions. This risks turning into an explosive mixture. If conditions change, the whole process of analysis collapses and the uncertainty becomes so great that it is useless. However, the wick is represented by human behavior. Ego-driven scholars express absolute truths that are not, forgetting about uncertainty and probabilities. The media that exaggerates and sometimes shouts these “facts”. Populations treated as ignorant children avoid the full (sometimes complicated) expression of scientific research, accustomed to searching more and more for the method of extreme simplification. This is why the “predictions” about the number of Covid-19 infections as well as about environmental disasters are wrong. For we are talking about “expectations” that emphasize their esoteric and absolute traits, rather than estimates burdened with all uncertainty. If conditions then change – new norms, new group behaviors – perhaps in an unpredictable way – a new variable – that sets a new scenario and requires new analyses. It is not a failure, but it can become a failure if science is not communicated with rigor and humility, always focusing on the system of uncertainty. This is to avoid a real failure: for science to become opinion.

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* Full Professor of Statistics Unimore