At the World Science Festival: Science and storytelling; certainty and chance

The World Science Festival, a five-day, 50-program event taking place in New York City through June 5, was designed to make the esoteric understandable and the familiar fascinating. Bringing together world-renowned thinkers, scientists, artists, journalists and more, the widespread nature of the event emphasizes the significant role science has in influencing our day-to-day as well as the greater global picture.

PopTech was present at a couple of events on Thursday and came away with a couple of key takeaways that resonated with our own mission.

From Science Storytellers at the Paley Center for Media, the casual conversation amongst scientific heavyweights E.O. Wilson, James Watson, Siddhartha Mukherjee (PopTech 2010) and Steven Pinker (PopTech 2007) focused on using the written word to interpret science for the general public.  In explaining the intersection between his written and scientific work, Mukherjee stated:

What connects a scientist and a writer is that you don’t have a sense of where you’re going. There’s an element of discovery…

From The Illusion of Certainty: Risk, Probability and Chance, the event kicked off with the moderator, Marcus du Sautoy, asking the presenters, “Are people good or bad at interpreting numbers?” Panelist and psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer responded that people are not good at interpreting numbers and pointed to an example that reflected an issue which arose throughout the rest of the session:

What does it actually mean when a meteorologist says that there’s a 30% chance of rain? Does that mean 30% for the day? For that specific region? For what span of time?

Gigerenzer continued that in considering an illusion of certainty, people rely on numbers too much without necessarily understanding what the numbers mean. They experience a sense of satisfaction and resolve having numbers to fall back on. Yet, those numbers are frequently presented without the context necessary to fully understand them. The fault frequently lies with the meteorologist, the journalist, the mathematician  - the person presenting the information - who doesn’t effectively communicate the data.

Whether it’s interpreting numbers around a study on the probability of cancer diagnoses, tomorrow’s weather, or the side effects of a new drug, human dependency on numbers can provide us with a flawed sense of security if we don’t truly understand their significance. We tend towards an over-reliance on numbers, but sometimes it’s okay to take a chance and trust our gut.

The World Science Festival continues with workshops, panels and even a parade through June 5.

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