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No Time for Certainty

Uncertainty and imprecision are basic attributes of interpreting the world and should not be viewed with scorn or disdain but understood, measured (when possible), and mixed into the framework of well-planned and well-reasoned public policies.

It has been said that a person with one wristwatch always knows what time it is. A person with two is never quite certain. The person with two watches is tormented if each displays a different time. A passerby asking for the time of day will induce a semi-painful mental dissonance.

Most science and public policy issues resemble the two-watch scenario. More generally, we inhabit a world with uncertainty, inaccuracy, and imprecision. This inexactness stretches into all realms of our existence—science, politics, public policy, religion, social interactions, news media, environment, economy, and so on. Yet many are beckoned and drawn toward the over-simplicity and overconfidence found in consciously choosing to wear one watch. Bertrand Russell hits the bull’s-eye saying, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts” (Russell n.d.).

In this world, it is possible for both watches, when wearing two, to be inaccurate—and in some cases purposely distorted. Consider the scandal engulfing Volkswagen. The company introduced software into eleven million vehicles that was designed to cheat emissions tests (Davenport 2016), and a team of engineers and researchers from West Virginia University discovered the deception (Ross 2016).

This team refused to wear just one watch. They could have simply accepted the measurements made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on tailpipe emissions, but they instead decided to perform independent measurements both in the lab and on the road. Reproducibility is a hallmark of science, which means other watches should show roughly the same time but didn’t in this case.

It was reported (Open Science Collaboration 2015) in August of 2015 that a group of 270 researchers, known as the “Open Science Collaboration,” tried to replicate 100 social and cognitive studies published in top, peer-reviewed psychology journals. Only about one-third to one-half of the original findings was observed in the replicated studies. Metaphorically, more than half of the watches—in this large collection—have never really functioned properly.

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