It may be unnerving to be uncertain about the outcome of things, especially when it comes to the economy, politics, wars, and the weather, says Columbia University biology department chair Stuart Firestein at Wired Science. But in science, uncertainty is helpful rather than harmful. "Wasn't science immune to uncertainty, with its measurements of things like the weight of an electron out to 8 or so decimal places? In fact wasn't science actually in the business of getting rid of uncertainty, of rooting it out and disposing of it?" Firestein asks. The gathering of data is meant to get answers, after all.
But doubt has always existed as part of the scientific process, he says, quoting 18th century physicist James Clerck Maxwell who called science "thoroughly conscious ignorance." The gathering of data isn't so much meant to answer the questions scientists have, but rather to help them refine and frame better questions — and then ask more questions. "Science often traffics in doubt and readily welcomes revision. And these are precisely the attributes that make it deserving of our confidence," Firestein says. "Revision is a victory in science, and that is precisely what makes it so powerful."