The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty

The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty

The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty

The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty


In today's unpredictable and chaotic world, we look to science to provide certainty and answers--and often blame it when things go wrong. The Blind Spot reveals why our faith in scientific certainty is a dangerous illusion, and how only by embracing science's inherent ambiguities and paradoxes can we truly appreciate its beauty and harness its potential.

Crackling with insights into our most perplexing contemporary dilemmas, from climate change to the global financial meltdown, this book challenges our most sacredly held beliefs about science, technology, and progress. At the same time, it shows how the secret to better science can be found where we least expect it--in the uncertain, the ambiguous, and the inevitably unpredictable. William Byers explains why the subjective element in scientific inquiry is in fact what makes it so dynamic, and deftly balances the need for certainty and rigor in science with the equally important need for creativity, freedom, and downright wonder. Drawing on an array of fascinating examples--from Wall Street's overreliance on algorithms to provide certainty in uncertain markets, to undecidable problems in mathematics and computer science, to Georg Cantor's paradoxical but true assertion about infinity--Byers demonstrates how we can and must learn from the existence of blind spots in our scientific and mathematical understanding.

The Blind Spot offers an entirely new way of thinking about science, one that highlights its strengths and limitations, its unrealized promise, and, above all, its unavoidable ambiguity. It also points to a more sophisticated approach to the most intractable problems of our time.


We are going to have to learn to live with a lot
more uncertainty for a lot longer than our
generation has ever experienced.

—Thomas L. Friedman

This book is about science, what it is as opposed to what people say it is; what scientists do as opposed to what most people believe they do. Science is what we use to understand the world and to understand ourselves. It defines what is real and sets limits on what is possible, on what is conceivable. Today when the dream of unending and inevitable progress seems unduly optimistic, then perhaps the time is ripe to go back and reexamine our view of science and sort out its strengths from its weaknesses.

Most people would identify science with certainty. Certainty, they feel, is a state of affairs with no downside, so the most desirable situation would be one of absolute certainty. Scientific results and theories seem to promise such certainty. The popular belief in scientific certainty has two aspects: first, that a state of objective certainty exists and second, that scientific kinds of activities are the methods through which this state can be accessed. Yet I will make the case that absolute certainty is illusory and that the human need for certainty has often been abused with noxious consequences.

Contemporary society is beset by an ever-increasing set of crises and potential crises, which are exacerbated, and in some cases brought on, by a misreading of science and the scientific method, a misreading that we could call pseudo-science. This brings on a kind of vicious circle where the solutions that are proposed to the problems we face only succeed in making matters worse. Is there another, expanded, way of looking at science that will put the drive for certainty in perspective and provide a . . .

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