In Search of Lost Ambiguity

by Jalees Rehman

Lorax meets Rorschach (by Mark Turnauckas via Flickr)

Probably. Possible. Perhaps. Indicative. Researchers routinely use such suggestives in scientific manuscripts, because they acknowledge the limitations of the inferences and conclusions one can make when analyzing scientific data. The results of individual experiments are often open to multiple interpretations and therefore do not lend themselves to making definitive pronouncements. Cell biologists, for example, may test the role of molecular signaling pathways and genes which regulate the cellular functions by selectively deleting individual genes. However, we are also aware of the limitations inherent in this reductionist approach. Even though gene deletion studies allow us to study the potential roles of selected genes, we know that several hundred genes act in concert to orchestrate a cellular function. The role of each gene needs to be interpreted in the broader context of their role in this cellular orchestra. It is therefore not possible to claim that one has identified the definitive cause of cell growth or cell survival. Addressing causality is a challenge in biological research because so many biological phenomena are polycausal.

This does not mean that we cannot draw any conclusions in cell biology. Quite the contrary, being aware of the limitations of our tools and approaches forces us to grapple with the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent in scientific experimentation. Repeat experiments and statistical analyses allow researchers to quantify the degree of uncertainty for any given set of studies. When the results of scientific experiments are replicated and confirmed by other research groups, we can become increasingly confident of our findings. However, we also do not lose sight of the complexity of nature and are aware of the fact that scientific tools and approaches will likely change over time and uncover new depths of knowledge that could substantially expand or challenge even our most dearly held scientific postulates. Instead of being frustrated by the historicity of scientific discovery, we are humbled by the awe-inspiring complexity of our world. On the other hand, it is difficult to disregard an increasing trend in contemporary science to obsess about the novelty of scientific findings. A recent study analyzed the abstracts of biomedical research papers published in the years 1974-2014 and found that during the 30 year time period, there was an 880% (nine-fold) increase in verbiage conveying positivity and certainty using words such as “amazing”, “assuring”, “reassuring”, “enormous”, “robust” or “unprecedented”.

Why are some scientists abandoning the more traditional language of science which emphasizes the probabilistic and historical nature of scientific discovery? Read more »