L. S. Gardiner creates educational experiences about our planet for websites, museums, and classrooms at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and UCAR Center for Science Education. In addition to writing creative nonfiction, she tells stories through comics and illustrations. Gardiner holds an MFA in creative nonfiction writing and a Ph.D. in geology.
The following is an excerpt from “Tales from an Uncertain World.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
2019 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Creative Nonfiction
Scientists work at the outskirts of our understanding, on the border between known and unknown. On one side of this boundary is all the science that we know. On the other side of the boundary is an endless plain of knowledge that we do not yet know. And the science that researchers are exploring now is right on the boundary.
Over a century ago, the idea that carbon dioxide traps heat was on the outskirts of our understanding, but today it is far inland, because many scientists have tested it with different methods. About seventy years ago, the idea that humans were changing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was at the boundary of our understanding, but today that’s understood, too. For decades, scientists around the world have been measuring the amount of carbon dioxide in air collected each day. They have also been measuring carbon dioxide from ancient air bubbles extracted from glaciers and the amount of carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere. Over time, understanding of our ability to change carbon dioxide levels and warm the planet has grown. That is no longer on the border of what’s known.
Today, scientists are working at the outer reaches of our understanding, learning details that will let us make better predictions of future climate, such as the rate that methane gas is released as frozen soils melt in the Arctic and the impact of different types of clouds on climate. These topics and many others are on the boundary of what’s known. The answers will help us know more specifically how much climate change we should expect and how climate change will affect other parts of the planet.
Scientists need to communicate where on the boundary they are located so that others understand what we know and what we don’t know. Talking about what we don’t know lets us understand what we do know. It defines the location of the border.
For example, many scientists develop the math equations that make up a climate model. They need to communicate with each other about the equations they are adding to the model. And by describing the uncertainty in each addition they propose, they are identifying what still needs work in order to make the model more accurate. It’s as if the model is a pot of soup and hundreds of scientists are the chefs. They are all adding spices to the soup and need to make it clear what’s been added and what still needs to be added; otherwise, the soup is going to taste horrendous.
There are aspects of our planet that are way inland from the border of our understanding.
Dropped objects fall because of gravity, for example. These concepts are not likely to change with more knowledge, so they fill science textbooks, which need to last for many years. And because they fill textbooks, it can appear to students that everything in science is known. If that were the case, then scientists would stand around in lab coats with nothing to do. They might dissect the occasional fetal pig or identify the same rock types over and over like students do, but they would always find the same organs within the pig, and the rock types would never change.
This is not the case.
“Science is a constant process of narrowing uncertainty and gaining improved understanding. It is not static,” explained climate scientist and psychologist Jeffrey Kiehl in his book, Facing Climate Change: An Integrated Path to the Future.
Not everything is known. There will always be more unknowns in the universe than knowns. Scientists have an eye for unknowns and an internal reservoir of curiosity that drives them to figure things out. Science involves wondering why things happen. It also involves coming up with possible answers to the “why” questions and testing those possibilities. It involves looking at all the evidence. This can narrow down the reasons why something happens, but often does not totally eradicate the uncertainty.
“Science is uncertain,” wrote biochemist and writer Isaac Asimov. “Theories are subject to revision; observations are open to a variety of interpretations, and scientists quarrel amongst themselves.” Asimov was referring to the reason that many people prefer the “rigid certainty of the Bible” to the science of biological evolution, but the same could be said for any variety of science.
Understanding the way scientists approach their work can be helpful for understanding how they navigate uncertainty and how we all can do the same. To describe how science works, I will share an example of a fictional situation in which characters did not think like scientists and consider how the situation would have been different if the characters were thinking like scientists.
In The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the narrator, a pilot stranded in a desert, recounts a story from his childhood. When young, he made a drawing titled Drawing Number One. He showed his drawing to grown-ups, and they thought it was a hat. That was not what he had intended. He created Drawing Number Two, a cross section view, and showed that to the grown-ups. What appeared to be the space that a head would occupy in a hat was instead an elephant, which was within a snake. (Note: For copyright reasons, I am unable to share these two drawings with you, fair reader. But due to the Internet’s complete disregard for copyright, you can find the images easily by putting the words prince, hat, and elephant into a Google search. Go ahead. Try it. And then keep reading.)
If the grown-ups were thinking like scientists, they would have looked at Drawing Number One and made observations. When they exclaimed that it was a hat, they would have been making a hypothesis, a testable statement. Drawing Number Two, the cross section that shows what is below the surface, would be new information that would allow them to refute the hat hypothesis.
However, the grown-ups were not scientists. When presented with Drawing Number Two, which clearly presents more evidence in support of an alternate hypothesis — this was not a hat, but instead an elephant that was consumed by a snake — the grown-ups dismissed the new data. Having come to a conclusion early on, they were not receptive to more information provided by Drawing Number Two. This is happening in the world today among people who refuse to accept climate change. Many people, including a few people who call themselves scientists, have been shown information about what is happening to the planet’s climate and refuse to accept it. If we all went around making hypotheses instead of conclusions about the first facts that we learn, we would be more open to learning new things.
The narrator in The Little Prince was not a scientist either. He judged the grown-ups for their hat hypothesis. He stopped showing grown-ups Drawing Number Two and instead made the assumption that these grown-ups were not worth his time, that they were narrow-minded and had limited imagination. A hat wasn’t a bad guess, and thus it was a good hypothesis (except for the fact that the hypothetical hat had an eye).
Had the grown-ups rejected the hat hypothesis when they were shown Drawing Number Two, they might have formed a new hypothesis that this was an elephant that had been eaten by a snake. According to the scientific method, they would not know that this hypothesis was correct. There would still be uncertainty. The grown-ups would need to be skeptical. They would want to gather more data. For example, a grown-up might ask to see Drawing Number Three, in which a penny is drawn next to the animals to give scale to these creatures. Another grown-up might look for eyewitness accounts of the snake eating the elephant. They would be working on the outskirts of our understanding. And as scientists, they would share their new data and hypotheses with each other to get critical feedback from other scientists.
When a hypothesis is tested in different ways, we narrow down the reason for a particular phenomenon, but there will always be some uncertainty. Perhaps we will find that it is a toy elephant inside a sock puppet. In the case of climate science and other types of environmental change, there will also always be some uncertainty because we will never know everything.
Environmental changes may be slow or fast, large or small. One change may cause another. With environmental change, uncertainty crops up repeatedly, and whether the uncertainty is due to nature’s chaos or because we are on the edge of what’s known, we will never be totally sure. Uncertainty about environmental changes can make it particularly difficult to recognize an emergency when we see one. It is challenging to make decisions when we are faced with uncertainty, but it’s everywhere, even if we ignore it. If we understand where the uncertainty is coming from and why it is there, we can make better decisions in the face of it to keep ourselves safe and our world habitable. There may not be an In Case of Emergency sign when we find ourselves in harm’s way, but we’ll still need to take action, despite the uncertainty.
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