Stranger Thesis: Chicken, Uncertainty and Sisyphus

By Mónica Ribau

Henry IV of France (1553-1610) promised that, if God helped him, each peasant would have a chicken on his plate every Sunday. After another thirty years of life, he was able to read “Meditations” (1640) by Descartes, who is considered to be the father of the scientific revolution. Agriculture and livestock rearing would ensure more chicken production and more people alive than was ever possible.

Right now, I write this post calmly, myself a privileged product of science, with a full fridge and singing birds around me – the kind of bird which we do not eat. However, Henry IV’s promise remains unfulfilled. There have never been so many chickens globally, but they were never as concentrated in so few mouths. Eradicating hunger is the second Sustainable Development Goal, and poverty is the first (plus 20’s issues).

After all, the God of Henry IV, who became “Science” in the Scientific Society, is in crisis. Certainty is expected from scientific knowledge, when it has always thriven on scepticism. Neither science nor democracy work like religion, rather taking reality as having shades of grey instead of a reduced black-or-white dichotomy. Complex dynamics, like the Changing Climate or the Coronavirus, enhance perceptions of uncertainty and, with that, the freedom of choice between extremes. Complex dynamics show that science is not about giving just one single number to problems clearly not reducible to such, as that provides a false sense of certainty and security in an entropic world where we cannot control everything.

 But “people want certainty, not knowledge“, as Bertrand Russel said. And, in consequence, West Civilization knows more than ever, and citizens trust less and less. Therefore, strategic narratives (persuasive use of story systems) in science communication have been gathering support. The perception of certainty and the legitimacy of institutions are deemed preferable to an uncertain future. Given the critical role of truth in democracies, several authors contend that a democracy cannot have a “truth” incapable of accurately representing the world.

My PhD research  is based on identifying how the most popular narratives on climate change convey uncertainty, such as: “the collapse is imminent”; “12 years to save the world“, “they’re destroying our future” and “Climate change is uncertain”. We use two concepts, proposed by Christopher Auretta, to classify and understand the role of uncertainty in worries of communication collapse – whose function is to find common grounds for information exchange and stimulate respectful and humble debate, a pillar in democratic societies: 1) biophobic discourses promote stability and finished truth, but also polarisation (objective/subjective, true/false) and lower critical thinking; 2) biophilic discourses consider scepticism  a part of the quest for truth (improving question mentoring), however it requires individuals capacity to choose and constantly promote a homeostatic balance between extremes (freedom and responsibility, simultaneously). To objectively analyse discourses, considering their uncertainty features and detecting whether they contain polarised, absolutistic narrative patterns, we introduce a new process-consistent Artificial Intelligence framework.

“I will fight for your future”, says Greta Thunberg (Lisbon: December 3, 2019)

Comparing data and describing communication trends, the most popular narratives sideline uncertainty as a threat. Denialists follow a similar approach, though they communicate uncertainty to discredit the evidence. Comparatively, in their latest Assessment Report, the IPCC characterised uncertainty whilst stating: “uncertainty about impacts does not prevent immediate action”. In the former, truth is taken for certainty and is considered objective, whereas uncertainty is a sign of discredit. Biophilic discourse is not identified in any narrative.

In line with linguistic research, the use of these strategic narratives reveals that the traditional conception of scientific discourse has become outdated. Should scientific discourse be centred on the description of discoveries? Should the role of political discourse be to convince someone to act? Can biophobic truth lead us to a new version of totalitarianism, with the justification that it is necessary to bridge the gap between what is done and what science shows ought to be done – dismissing critical thinking or distinguishing fact from fiction?

The complementarity of this thesis approach relative to social and information technologies is brought out, along with ways forward to reinforce the fundamental role of uncertainty in scientific communication and to strengthen public confidence in the scientific endeavour. Public interest in climatic change and extremes increases following high-impact events. Yet, trust in science plunges into a deep polarised divide between absolute acceptance and outright rejection relative to the bold headlines conveyed not only in the media but also in some scientific literature. Society grasps and recognises certainty as security (for Wittgenstein the concepts mean the same) and demands it from institutions, accepting degrees of authoritarianism to maintain a tolerable living condition. Citizens expect certainties from political institutions and scientists (Astrazeneca crisis, mask use controversy) and negationists use erroneous IPCC projections as an argument.

Nietzsche said: “the opposite of truth is not a lie, but a conviction“. Scientific culture is pivotal to analysing complexity, objectivity, and uncertainty in the definition of truth (absent from epistemological discussions for centuries). However, dogmatic leaders strike one as prophets acting in the name of science. The moralisation of science communication reveals how XVII century revolutionary scepticism can now be perceived as a threat, and facts expected from science can be deemed dogmatic truths and perceived as decrees through rationalism and as an extension of Judeo-Christian philosophical influence.

Scientific discourse outputs and social reality constructions influence each other. Unable to eliminate uncertainty, it becomes an essential escort to recognise, manage and communicate its pertinence, stirring the waters. Humour/sarcasm, literature or debate are examples of introducing complex thinking (and communicate entropy) of scientific models. Unless we understand acknowledgement of ignorance as a sign of knowledge, this is, like Russel advice (in 1949), “the modern way of the old fight for existence (…). Reduce again to bows and arrows; the Homo sapiens can breathe and road again to a similar futile culmination.”

After all, would the XVII century king understand how people continue to die of starvation, and the first landing on Mars has happened while the terrestrial population is confined at home, in existential collapse because of a pandemic?

Biography: A PhD candidate at ICS-ULisboa, with the Programme on Climate Change and Sustainable Development Policies, Mónica is also a journalist. She worked for radio (105.0fm, 107.9fm) and television (SIC, SIC Notícias, SP Televisão). With experience in oceanic literacy and public participation (FCT-Nova researcher), she has been a famelaber, PubhD participant, first coordinator of PintofScience-Aveiro and judge and seminarist of “”Jovens Repórteres pelo Ambiente“.


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