Why no serious scientist “with certainty” says

A guest article by Daniel Dreyer

Science. A job that should be taken damn seriously. Especially for a scientist. Not only do you take your job seriously, you also take it very seriously. And if one thing is certain in science, it is that nothing is ever really certain – not even today’s knowledge.

Scientists take science very seriously. And they have to. After all, depending on the field of research, sometimes human lives are at stake, but at least always their credibility, their income, their professional existence. If you lie once, you lose your credibility, and if, as a scientist, you repeatedly make demonstrably false assertions, publish incorrect research results or praise findings as “the truth”, you are not a scientist.

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Questions until the doctor comes

So what do serious scientists do? They explore, experiment, calculate, collect evidence and check counter-evidence, they question – above all, they constantly question themselves and their previous findings, they question the current state of science.

And they are aware that there will always be something they do not (yet) know. Scientific findings are never seen as irrefutable truth, but only as an approximation to reality – and scientists even admit this! A scientist should not feel too bad to correct his findings and statements of yesterday today and tomorrow. It is this awareness in which scientists make their statements. Unfortunately, this is exactly the problem, the big misunderstanding that some contemporaries seem to have with science.

“I know that I know nothing.”
according to Socrates

Nothing is 100% certain. Not even a paternity test. Yet we all long for certainty, for the absolute truth. If we do not even get this from experts like scientists, some react very disappointed, some even hostile (see Corona pandemic). Or, quite perfidiously, some use the cautious language of science to stir up fears and distort the facts. There are some earth-shattering examples of this.

Residual doubts about man-made climate change? Let’s party!

“Man-made climate change is sufficiently proven.” is a statement that the majority of climate researchers would subscribe to. Well, “sufficient” does not mean the same as “with 100% certainty”. “Oho,” thinks the critical (or convenient) observer, “so the scientists are not sure or in agreement. Well, then …”, and books the next short-haul flight.

And because it was so nice, here is another example of climate change and the paradoxical behaviour of individuals towards science: if only one in every 500 scientists expresses his or her doubts about man-made climate change particularly vociferously, his or her statement is suddenly given particular weight. Because (or although?) he is a scientist. But let’s be honest: Is he being heard because he is a brilliant lateral thinker – or because it is more convenient to simply not change your current lifestyle?

5G…on thin ice!

A similar phenomenon can be observed in the discussion about the new mobile phone standard 5G. The high demand for mobile telecommunication on the one hand and the health concerns in the population on the other hand have led to the fact that mobile telecommunication and its health consequences have been and are being intensively researched during the decades of its use. The current state of science is: Despite individual indications, no evidence for health damage by mobile radiation could be found. (Source: Mobile Communication – a Health Risk?)

“Despite individual indications, no evidence has been found” is once again formulated in a scientifically cautious manner, but in practice it means a lot. Namely that it is hardly to be expected that such evidence will be found. If one were to drill into a scientist, the following dialogue might emerge.

Interviewer: “Is 5G dangerous?
Scientist: “According to the findings of science: no.”
Interviewer: “Are you sure?
Scientist: “As sure as you can be.”
Interviewer: “Aha!” (Interviewer notes: “Scientist is uncertain!”)

In a tabloid or blog, depending on the intended effect on the target group, this becomes the headline

“Scientist considers danger from 5G possible”,

even if he did not say so explicitly or the “possibility” is even within the range of “highly improbable”. Do you know the sentence: “The honest one is the stupid one”? Unfortunately, it is true here, because the serious scientist, who expresses himself cautiously, scientifically professional and honest in the best sense of the word, looks pretty stupid.

Added to this is the tendency, depending on one’s interests, to overestimate the improbable. “Science expresses residual doubts? Then let’s leave it at that” is the motto that takes the precautionary principle ad absurdum and has little to do with the much vaunted common sense. It is less based on clear evidence than on the mere assumption that “there could still be something there”, in other words: it is based on fear, on the slightest residual doubt, on belief in the highly improbable, which some people also call a miracle. If the police, courts and public prosecutors’ offices proceeded according to this principle, no offender would be allowed to remain in prison. After all, a smoking gun and a credible eyewitness allow “no reasonable doubt”, but “no reasonable doubt” is not the same as “no doubt at all”, is it? And isn’t it “in dubio pro reo”?

Of course the comparison between science and jurisprudence is misleading. But it proves where cherry-picking at scientific facts can lead. Whether this plea now allows the conclusion “in dubio pro scentia”, in doubt for science, is of course not yet fully proven. But we will continue our research, I promise!