We live in a world that loves certainty. We strive for it, value it, claim we have it when often we don’t. Some theorists used to believe that the foundations of fact and objectivity on which science appear to be based meant that it had all the answers. Science produced knowledge, but as concepts such as Quantum theory and Relativity have shown us, that knowledge is far from complete and likely always will be.
So why is it that we still love surety so much? Why do we still have such difficulty in coming to terms with uncertainty? This is a subject to be explored by Dangerous Knowledge , a documentary by film-maker David Malone being shown on BBC4 on Wednesday night as part of it’s "Science you can’t see" series. David’s own preview of his film (here – sub reqd) is subtitled "are we still addicted to certainty?". I think this is a good question. As David says:
"Few notions have become as deeply embedded in our culture as the belief that there is a perfect certainty to be had"
Yet it is uncertainty that has ruled mathematics and physics for more than a century, and the pursuit of perfect, unequivocal answers is fraught with danger:
"Certainty is an unforgiving taskmaster. It may seem prudent to say that when scientists are certain then we’ll know what to do, but it is a mere step from there to say we should do nothing until we are certain."
David says that the reason he made the film was to "champion the incomplete, the uncomputable and the uncertain", by telling the stories of the thinkers who understood what it is about science, logic and mathematics that we still haven’t properly grasped as a culture. Thinkers like mathematician Georg Cantor , logician Kurt Godel (pictured above) and Alan Turing (pictured left), Nazi code-breaker and father of modern computer science. It’s an irony not lost on David Malone that Turing’s invention, the computer, is now most often thought of in terms anathema to what he used it for: the machine that gives us absolute precision, the answers to everything, certainty.
Most great theories are incomplete. In fact, far from being a weakness, this is their strength, since it leaves room…room for further thinking to flourish: "Certainty" says David,"is totalitarian, it forecloses further thinking." There will always be facts that won’t fit the model, examples which don’t align with your thinking, numbers which don’t say what you think they will. Even in an industry as imprecise as advertising we still crave certainty. I just wonder if therein lies the reason why advertising isn’t changing faster.
(NB. for those without access to BBC4, the documentary should be available here after wednesday)