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Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that I didn't feel that came across here.

Perhaps underlying the issue is that it's not at all clear who this book is aimed at. The problem described is often one of public understanding of science, but the book wouldn't work for the public - it's not approachable enough and has little to attract it to the public gaze. I would hope that scientists generally already know about the role of uncertainty in science. Perhaps the best audience in terms of finding it useful would be science communicators, but there was no indication that it was written for such an audience.

It's not that uncertainty is an unimportant issue. I often find, for instance, the presentation of science in the media (even science-focused media) has far too strong a tendency to present science as the search for the truth, rather than the best theory given current evidence - but I can't see how this book will help make things better.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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