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07 April 2007



First, I also attended the discussion, and am sorry that I did not get a chance to meet you and say hello. Second, I completely agree with your issues with certainty. I remember that one of the panelists mentioned something about scientists wanting to be the "next Galileo" in terms of accomplishment. Then came the comment about certainty, and my biologist friend and I looked at each other and agreed that certainty leads to orthodoxy which leads to the marginalization of unaccepted ideas which leads to charges of heresy....but wait, I might be talking about the debate in the scientific community about global warming. As a non-scientist, I find comfort in the notion of the scientific method, or, maybe, objective truth, which may be revised as more data is verified. But, it's true at the time, which I take to mean unbiased. It seems to me that what the world really needs now is unbiased reporting in all things. And we certainly do not need peer pressure limiting the ability to think about controversial (I do not mean unsettled, either) topics. I thought the "take-away" from the panel was that the scientific community needs to do a better job of communicating, not indoctrinating.

Annie in Austin

Pam, I am no scientist, but after forty years with Philo, who is one, I may have absorbed some ability to live with scientific uncertainty. Or at least with the fluid nature of what we believe to be certain at a given moment.

I'm just a garden blogger but even I tend to throw in words like 'usually', 'occasionally', 'as a general rule', 'probably' and 'in my experience'.

DeFur may be see a need for speaking with more certainty, but people who speak with absolute certainty make me nervous.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose


I too am no scientist, so I find your micrograph positively fascinating! When I studied anatomy and physiology eons ago, the cellular stuff reinforced my belief in a supreme being/force.

I think that we as women are more likely to qualify what we say with the words you and Annie mention, and I also think it's more realistic to be less "certain". Truly, what in life is certain?


Ad: Too bad that we didn't cross paths out at the Fort! I thought it was an interesting discussion, and I emailed the seminar folks today, suggesting that we try to continue the conversation sometime in the future. As an aside - I'd have to say that there really isn't much debate within the scientific community regarding global warming - the media, in their attempts to give equal weight to both sides - have given that perception, but within the science trenches, that really isn't the case (and I realize that isn't exactly what you were insinuating). But I digress (as usual) - honestly, during the panel discussion I turned to the person next to me and said 'great, more work' - most research scientists that I know are horrifically overextended - and now...this?

Annie: I agree - when I come across someone who such certainty, I always tend to wonder what the underlying motivation is - it generally is NOT scientific!

Pat: Perhaps women do use those words more often, I'll have to pay attention to that - I think that you may be right. And I so agree about certainty (or the lack thereof). I know that issues related to my mother's recent diagnosis has shaken my confidence in being certain about most things.


What physical laws reveal and what people want are two entirely different matters.

Ellis Hollow

I'm with Annie. The only thing that I'm absolutely certain about is that people who speak with absolute certainty are absolutely wrong. And that really makes me nervous, too.

Something to keep in mind: We are vastly outnumbered by folks who have never taken a college-level course in probability and statistics -- not that that is an absolute requirement to understand how scientists deal with uncertainty.

I think some people are better able to understand this stuff than others. My son got it at a very early age and was playing poker (and well) almost before he could read. When he went away to college, I wasn't so much worried about drugs as I was about sports gambling.

I also have faith in science based on (it's been 30 years so I've forgotten the author) Structure of Scientific Revolutions. If we keep searching for truth, incorrect orthodoxies will get overturned by the weight of evidence. Reality rules, you know.

Sorry, this is getting way to heavy for a
Saturday night.


Jason: Yes, they are often very different things. Do you think that what 'people' want would change if scientists found more effective ways to communicate?

Ellis: Yep, too heavy for a Saturday night! You're right on the statistics point, I hadn't really thought of it that way, but understanding 'uncertainty' is as much of a statistical challenge, as it is a scientific one. Even scientists have trouble with that one (my PhD mentor had a signed above his desk that said 'if you need statistics to understand your results, then you've designed the wrong experiment'...now, he knew that was true - but it is the feeling of many of the original molecular biologists I think - but now that molecular biology has morphed into genomics - we're very much immersed in the world of 'bioinformatics' and are desperate for folks to help us with our obscenely large datasets!). I agree on the 'weight of the evidence' - I've always found that hopeful.


Hi Pam,

Different aspects of human nature may be expressed according to variations in environment and circumstance but overall, human nature doesn't change. So, yeah, we will go on wanting the same things.

Of course, scientists finding new ways to communicate (and I think this is already happening) will help further the understanding of science in the minds of more and more people. That's a good thing.

People have a very difficult time coming to terms with uncertainty. The idea that we are spinning around on this big blue marble without any guiding voice to let us know if the decisions we are making will lead toward better days or ruin is too much for many people to handle.

People with an interest in steering public opinion to achieve political goals understand that all too well.


I think what Peter DeFur was speaking of is the equivocating that we tend to do when talking to reporters. We know how much uncertainty there is and often will use words such as "likely" or "probably" as was pointed out in another post. Generally, reporters want to know what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what we have found. It's the last one that can give heartburn when we know that there is more work to be done. Mentioning that though generally gets big eye rolls and smirks. "You scientists always need to do more research" or "When are you going to say for SURE something is the case?" I've heard this over and over from reporters. They and the public don't seem to be very comfortable with the idea that we don't know for SURE. So perhaps that is what Pete was trying to say--be more confident when you provide information. I'm comfortable about that with some things that I've been quoted on but not on others. I reserve the right to be uncertain when I'm not SURE.


Jason: There's definitely challenges at the intersection of the public and politicians and scientists - no wonder traffic (or the transmission of scientific ideas) gets so tangled!

Elizabeth: I actually spoke with Peter at the White House after his talk about uncertainty - I don't think he was suggesting to be more confident - unless, of course, the confidence is backed up by data - but it really is next to impossible to present most research in truly confident terms. It's significant within what level of significance, under what specific conditions? Usually that is only a narrow window that we speak of. In a sense, like Dan and I talked about afterwards - perhaps what's gotten 'us' into all of this is speaking in certain terms too confidently, resulting in certain expectations that are next to impossible to uphold.

The County Clerk

Gott in Himmell!

How did I miss this one! I'm stunned.

I had no idea about ANY of this. The "photo" is gorgeous to boot. And yes... communication.... on multiple levels...

Is this "interconnectedness" fairly typical of most bacteria? Is anything "typical" of most bacteria?

I keep thinking of that image. Remarkable.

This is precisely the kind of thing which will spin me up (and then kick me in the teeth when I rapidly reach the boundaries of my education).

I don't think I'll be getting more work done today... I have things to find out.

Thank you for your eloquent explanations and though provoking reaction.




CC: It is an amazing image, isn't it? Imagine that image - of a single bacterial species - and then imagine the complexity in another bacterial biofilm that we are studying, that consists of a predicted 155 different bacterial species!

The more we look, the more levels and layers of bacterial communication are found. First it was Gram-negative bacteria, then Gram-positives - and now everyone is interested in prokaryotic-eukaryotic singling and 'co-evolution' of species. It's a very interesting time to be a microbiologist - we just have some incredible tools at our disposal.

If I remember, I'll send a review article your way. I think that you would enjoy it.

The County Clerk

I had never, before yesterday, thought in any kind of serious way about bacteria. This has changed. What a fascinating subject. Thank you.

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