Can science explain everything? – Michael Blastland
Smoking kills - but it doesn't kill everyone. So why can't we predict which smokers will live? The answer is uncertainty in the data.
We know a lot. In scientific studies, we can count data, observe trends, infer links and calculate risks. But we also spend a lot of time ignoring noise - the unexplained variations in our results that we can't account for. Take smoking for example. We all know that smoking kills, but it doesn't kill everyone, and we can't predict which lifelong smokers will be struck down by lung cancer, and which won't.
In his new book, The Hidden Half (£14.99, Atlantic Books), Michael Blastland discusses how, even in the most tightly controllable situations, we often still see variations in outcomes. He argues that our unwillingness to admit uncertainty can affect science, economics, politics and business, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
But it's not all bad news. New research shows that admitting the extent to which we're not sure could make us seem more trustworthy. And he explains that even though we don't know everything, experts and the scientific method are still the most important places for us to turn to for guidance.
He talks to Helen Glenny, editorial assistant at BBC Science Focus Magazine, in this week's episode of the Science Focus Podcast.
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Listen to more episodes of the Science Focus Podcast:
- What happens when maths goes horribly, horribly wrong? – Matt Parker
- There's no such thing as Blue Monday - Sir David Spiegelhalter
- What's the deal with algorithms? - Hannah Fry
- Inside the mind of a comedian – Robin Ince
- Is the cure for cancer hiding in human breast milk? - Professor Catharina Svanborg
- Is gene editing inspiring or terrifying? – Nessa Carey