The paradox of Science and uncertainty

28/4/2024 ☼ not-knowingriskuncertaintyscience

tl;dr: Modern Times are great because Science, but Science is also making it harder for us to relate well to uncertainty in Modern Times.

I’ve spent over 15 years professionally researching uncertainty (remember: uncertainty is not the same thing as risk) — and I still hate it viscerally. I am, after all, only human.

Humans evolved to crave certainty because of the control that it offers over what will happen in the future. With risk, we know almost everything there is to know about what we don’t know. Which is why risk is calculable and manageable.

In Modern Times, we’ve developed many methods for managing and mitigating risk. But the future, unlike a calculated risk, remains partially unchartable territory. By definition, the future is always uncertain, not just risky. For humans who love control, the future’s inherent uncertainty triggers discomfort and fear. These emotions have always made it hard for us to relate well to uncertainty: to think clearly about it, to embrace it when necessary or desirable, to use it strategically.

(I wrote previously about why not-knowing feels so hard.)

Now that Science — applying the scientific method, broadly construed — has become the default way we think about acting in the world, our relationship to uncertainty has only gotten worse.

Science (via medicine, public health policy, and infrastructure engineering) has doubled life expectancy in the last 150 years after centuries of slowly increasing life expectancy.

Global average life expectancy at birth.Global average life expectancy at birth.

Someone born in the 2020s (life expectancy ~70 years) has twice as much future to think about than someone born in 1900 (life expectancy ~32 years). Fear of an uncertain future becomes more intense as the youthful delusion of invincibility fades with each passing year.

Science has given us control over the world by revealing causal mechanisms for how things work. Medicine was revolutionized by the theory that diseases are caused by germs, and can be avoided or cured if the disease-causing germs are killed. Medicine is only one of the many domains of human activity in which Science has created in humans a powerful belief that we can control things by understanding how they work.

Beyond the belief that we can control what Science already lets us understand, Science also implicitly promises us that it can potentially be applied to understanding how anything and everything works — it creates a myth of general control. Uncertainty feels more unacceptable when you’re told (and you believe) in the myth of general control.

Science has given us longer lives, more control over the world, and a belief in the myth of general control — and the three combine to make it harder for us to relate well with the uncertainty that has always confronted us.