Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Predictive certainty

Something which fascinates me is the calmness with which many people I'm sure flip a light switch. The idea of light on demand is so common in my country that many people are simply shut down to a large extent with a power outage. There may be a rushing about to find a flashlight or candle, as people worry about when power crews will get the power back on.

The predictive certainty with which many of us operate allows us to live daily lives without thinking of it that way, while some seem certain we live in uncertain times, when we don't usually worry about crops on any given year, unless maybe a farmer. Few of us are keeping up with livestock, or worrying about what vegetables or fruits are in season. For many a trip to the grocery store is a casual process.

Reality is that living in the most advanced countries brings an extraordinary amount of certainty. And many know that science has something to do with it, but I found myself wondering why concerns about climate sparked so much questioning, and realized that few people may realize that science is about predictive certainty.

So why are people calm about a light switch but ready to challenge the best scientific experts about whether or not the climate is changing?

How do people get into their automobiles and calmly turn the key, to get to work on time, yet feel free to question related scientific principles when it is something as important as the climate of the planet?

Looking around at established definitions of science I think they are problematic. How do you read an established definition of science and know if someone is doing it or not? How do you carry confidence about the electricity flowing in your house yet question the possibility of epic change to the climate of your planet.

So I came up with my own definitions. These are not established. But I'm going to use them to give a functional view of science, show how predictive certainty works, and point out how you can know when someone is doing science.

science (noun): the art of prediction using methodologies and tools to expand zones of certainty by discovery of a predictive framework.

scientific theory (noun): predictive framework found by using science.


scientist (person): practitioner of science.


Science can be about medical science, where a doctor can set a broken bone with predictive certainty. Or it can be about bureaucratic science, where an MBA can learn management techniques for a particular size company. Or automotive science can allow a mechanic to fix your car, or hype up the performance of a race car.

But can a scientist just wake up one morning and definitively say a solution exists for a particular problem?

Usually, no. Experiments and theory and more experiments and studies by various scientists over time can find things that people may have never even realized were possible, so there is an art to it.

My definitions may seem extremely abstract. Where is the scientific method? Why no mention of the natural world or phenomena? How can I not use the word "experiment" or "hypothesis"?

Yet all those things are encapsulated within the abstraction. That's what abstraction is for: getting to the essence of the thing without unnecessary extra.

Experiments involve tools and methodologies to expand zones of certainty by discovery of a predictive framework. That predictive framework lets you do things like wire a house. Work on more efficient propulsion systems. Or produce a new vaccine.

Scientists make predictions.

Let me repeat: scientists make predictions!

That physicist tells you what will happen if you gather enough weapons grade plutonium together into a nuclear bomb.

That biologist tells you how to combat a particular bacterium.

That computer scientist tells you how to build a massively scalable architecture to process Big Data from a billion users around the globe.

Science is not about the unknown. Science is our predictive certainty of the known. It's about those things for which we are sure. That ever growing body of predictive certainty is what our civilization relies upon.

Scientists work to grow that predictive certainty. Beyond the boundaries of that work there are vast stretches of unknown areas. But mystery is not science. It can drive our best scientific minds to discovery.

But mystery is where our science has not yet arrived.

And if you dare to plan, rely on your vehicle to get you there on time, feel confident on that alarm to wake you, or that phone to make the call if needed, you believe in that predictive certainty which came from science.

So believe in it too when it tries to help you and others save your world.

Climate science has much that is certain. But more emphasis where it is uncertain which is where the excitement for scientists exists. That's unfortunate for those who seize upon the edges of predictive certainty to cast doubt on it all.

But I'm sure they have no qualms when they flip a light switch.


James Harris
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