Category Archives: Fallacies

The Moral Case Against Projecting Pathological Certainty

The sciences have greatly enriched human understanding of the world in which we find ourselves, moving us from magical explanations of phenomena to tested and scrutinized conceptual and mathematical models. Perhaps ironically, one of the insights science has delivered to humanity is the vast uncertainty we face when dealing with complex systems – especially living systems.

Mathematical statistics provide a rigorous approach to quantifying uncertainty and places clear bounds on what claims one can and cannot make with scientific near-certainty. When an individual claims certainty on some matter and appeals to ‘science’ as justification, that individual should be compelled to demonstrate how this certainty follows from rigorous analysis, including that the underlying assumptions of the mathematical tools applied are met in the real-world system of interest. Short of this, one can only adopt an attitude of certainty as a non-scientific opinion. We call such an abuse of the term ‘science’ to justify a non-scientific opinion pathological certainty

When pathological certainty is projected as expert advice to be trusted by non-experts, and when those who would place trust in the supposed expert bear real risks, there is great cause for moral concern.

Simply, in cases where there is vast scientific uncertainty and there exists the potential for severe harm to people and/or the environment, it is deeply immoral to project an image of science-backed certainty when adopting an advisory role to the public at large.

There is no such thing as an ‘anti-science’ position

A position on an issue, say a policy perspective on climate change, cannot in and of itself be ‘pro-‘ or ‘anti-science’ — only a position coupled with the reasoning for said position is sufficient for claiming that a position is appropriately informed by science or not.

In recent times, popular narratives have emerged that label some positions as inherently ‘anti-science’. Setting aside for the moment the fact that some positions are ‘a-scientific’ (that is, we can hold a position for non-scientific reasons), it is crucial to see why the ‘anti-science’ accusation is often a strawman and a red herring that works against fair-minded discussion and debate. This oversimplification is leveraged by those with agendas to silence dissenting views, which are the lifeblood of scientific progress.

For a position to be considered informed by science, the underlying reason for the position must accord with sound scientific reasoning (and not, as many seem to believe, whether the position conforms to some, oft-imagined, ‘consensus’ on the issue). This means conclusions are constrained by the underlying assumptions and limitations of the statistical tools used as part of the reasoning process. A detailed analysis of those constraints is beyond the scope of this post.

Consider the following claims:

1) “I believe in climate change, because yesterday it was hot outside.”

2) “I am skeptical of the predictive value of climate models because of structural uncertainties in the modeling approaches, and the significant impact this can have on long-term projections”

Which is a more scientifically sound position? (I should note here that my perspective on climate change is a precautionary one).

Another example:

1) “GMOs are safe because there is nothing different about them from regular food.”

2) “Transgenic methodologies are extremely novel, harm can take significant time to surface (e.g. prion diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy can take decades for symptoms to emerge), large-scale complex systems are notoriously difficult to predict, there is very little research done on ecological risks associated with large-scale genetic intervention; because of these reasons, and others, a precautionary approach to GMOs is warranted.”

Crucially, science by itself says little about the way we ought to address risk. Consider a situation in which we have 95% confidence of a favorable outcome. Would you ride in a plane based on those statistics?

A position is not pro- or anti-science because of its conclusions, but because of how those conclusions were reached. This does not guarantee the correctness of the conclusions, but focusing on the arguments and having fair-minded debates in good faith is the only way we will reach the appropriate conclusions — not through oversimplifications and pro/anti tribalism.