Uncertainty

The differences between the conversational and scientific uses of words such as law and theory are a dividing issue in the U.S. A law may mean a rule that is recognized and enforced, but a scientific law is a description of the natural world based on repeated experimental observation. Most people use the word hypothesis to describe a proposed explanation with limited evidence. Commonly, the word hypothesis can be synonymous with the word theory; however, a scientific theory describes a well-supported explanation based on knowledge that has been repeatedly confirmed.

It may surprise some that gravity is a scientific theory, and in science, the label “theory” denotes a high degree of trustworthiness. Creationism and Intelligent Design may be considered theories, but they are not scientific theories, like Evolution. The heavily circulated 2012 Gallup poll on Evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design showed that thirty-five percent of Americans believe science and religion are in conflict, and another twenty-five percent think a presidential candidate’s view on evolution indicates legitimacy. While scientists and non-scientists treat each other as people who need to be re-educated, confusion prevents effective policy-making. For example, in 2012 an anti-vaccine hearing was held in Congress by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Disproven rumors that child-hood vaccines can cause autism were presented as evidence.

“Uncertainty,” is a short story exploring internalization and miscommunication of evidence or lack thereof, by scientists and non-scientists alike. It aims to show that the scientific process does not necessarily divide us, but a lack of common vocabulary and understanding does.


Rachel Geiger sat at her linoleum kitchen counter across from her fourteen year old daughter, Jane. The youth was hastily consuming a bowl of cereal at the rate Rachel was answering last minute emails from her biotech colleagues. The sky was bright white and Jane had slept in, hoping school would be cancelled for snow. Frank Geiger entered the pale yellow room lit with gray from the sky. He filled a travel mug with coffee and said, “I’ll be home late again tonight,” before leaving. Neither Rachel nor Jane responded. As Jane rinsed out her empty bowl she commented, “I wonder why Dad’s staying at work late again tonight, I thought the publishing cycle ended last week.”

Rachel asked in return, “Why don’t you ask your Dad when he gets home?” cutting the discussion short.

Jane hypothesizes that her father is dishonest when he says he is going to be at work late. She has little evidence and needs to investigate further. She does not assume her father is lying, but she is biased towards her explanation because her father’s behavior mirrors a friend’s deceitful parent’s actions.

Rachel has a theory that her husband is honest when he says he is going to be at work late. Their seventeen year marriage has provided her with sufficient instances in which Frank’s trustworthiness has been repeatedly tested and observed. She is biased towards her explanation of events because the alternative might hurt Jane.

Rob Arch sat down on the cracked cover of a school bus seat beside Jane Geiger. Students rowdily filed into the metal cavern and formed groups of wool-wrapped travel mates. Jane was watching her breath form clouds on the cold window and saw Rob sit down in the glass’s reflection.

“Why does everyone freak out when it looks like it’s going to snow?” she asked Rob, keeping her eyes on the tiny drops of condensation.

“I don’t know. Why do people freak out about anything?” he replied without thought.

She didn’t respond.

Someone threw a ball of crumpled paper over their heads. Rob broke the momentary silence between him and Jane, “Let’s get off early and walk back through the woods.”

Jane shrugged, “Why not?”

Tap-tap-tap went Paul Le Marck’s knuckles on the sliding glass door of Max Arch’s kitchen. Max sat at a long oak table surrounded by piles of socially conservative magazines and bulletins. He looked up from his laptop and signaled to Paul that the door was open. Paul began the process of removing slush from his boots as Max saved the latest version of his article.

Years ago Max’s wife, Claire, had offered to watch Paul until his mother Kathy got home from work. It gave Rob a playmate and Kathy peace of mind. Paul still came over because he was close to Rob and the Arches, but lately Rob and Paul had been drifting apart. It was now common for Paul to show up in the afternoon before Rob, sometimes by hours.

Max coughed before asking Paul, “Do you know where Rob is?”

The tips of Paul’s ears were already red from the cold. The color spread down to his earlobes as he tried to think of what to say. He frequently saw Rob get off the bus early and climb into the woods with Jane Geiger. Paul assumed they were dating and he didn’t know how Rob’s father would feel about this.

Finally, Paul mumbled, “I think so, but I don’t think I can tell you.”

 Max is almost certain his son is doing something dangerous to himself with the unaccounted time between school and home. He is biased towards his hypothesis because of articles about abnormal teenage behavior that come with his preferred reading materials.

 Rob and Jane had exited the bus early as planned. The vehicle left brown tire marks in the aged sleet and the smell of warm exhaust behind it. They made their way through the forest behind the streets where their families lived. The low hung sun was shut out by the gray. There were no shadows of the leafless branches on the ground. Jane lifted a sapling’s branch out of Rob’s path and stated, “I don’t always feel like being your personal therapist, you know.”

Rob frowned, “I’m sorry, you’re perceptive and there’s no way I can talk to my parents or Paul about some of this stuff. Besides, I listen to you talk about your parents all the time.”

Jane shifted her backpack and begrudgingly withdrew her claim, “Yeah I know. It’s just annoying that I’m more paranoid than my mom. T.J.’s dad was a wreck when his mom started, ‘staying at work late,’ and, what do you know, he had a reason to be a wreck.”

Rob exhaled, “I know I’ve said this before, but maybe she just trusts him.”

Jane let the next branch smack Rob across the shoulders, “Again I know, and I know I’ve said this before, but maybe you’re just bisexual.”

Rob broke the assailant branch off the tree and threw it at Jane’s back, “Hence my need for a therapist.”

Jane sighed and they continued airing their personal grievances throughout their journey home.

After Jane had presented a report on homosexuality in biology, Rob had disclosed to her he thought about both men and women and had held romantic interest in both male and female classmates, but had no emotional or physical experience with either sex. Jane subsequently created the Law of Rob’s Adolescent Bisexuality to describe these observations.

Rob arrived at the sliding glass door behind his home as dusk turned to night. His father opened the door and asked where he had been. Rob glanced at Paul, who sat at the kitchen table with his history textbook out in front of him. Paul looked up at Rob nervously; he was worried he had incited a family conflict with his vague statements. Before Rob could answer his father’s question, Kathy Le Marck’s distinct tap-tap-a-tap-tap was heard on the front door. Max turned his attention to the front hall.

Paul and Rob looked at each other, but didn’t speak. They listened to their respective parents exchanging pleasantries and communicated about their own situation via facial expressions and glances.

“Thanks for looking after Paul again.”

“Oh please, did you get out of work early again today?”

“Yeah, there’s just not as much to do now that amateur photographers go for digital.”

“Does that worry you at all?”

“Well, no reason to worry yet.”

Kathy has an administrative job at a film based camera company. She does not have sufficient information to form a hypothesis about whether her position will be retained when the company inevitably decides to downsize or not.

Rachel Geiger was putting her coat on a hook in the pale yellow kitchen that evening when an unknown number called her phone.

“Hello, this is Rachel.”

“Hi Mrs. Geiger, this is Max Arch, Rob’s father. I was wondering if I could speak with you for a few moments.”

“Sure, what’s going on?”

“Well, I’ve been unaware of Rob’s whereabouts after school lately. Rob just told me he’s been taking walks with Jane, but I have a theory he’s using Jane as a front. Do you know if they’ve been spending a lot of time together?”

“You mean you have a hypothesis.”

“What?”

“You said you have a theory that Jane is Rob’s cover up, but you needed to call me to investigate that explanation. I don’t know if Jane’s been spending a lot of time with Rob after school or not, let me go ask her.”

The occupants of the neighborhood continued to use the scientific method to relate to each other. Sometimes they were aware of their natural tendency to gather and analyze evidence about each other, sometimes they were not. Jane was able to confront her father and the Geiger family attempted to become better communicators. Rob and his father remained at odds throughout high school as Rob refused to discuss observations about his sexuality and Max noticed increasing amounts of suspicious behavior. Kathy did lose her job, but found work a year later in public relations.

References
1. Gallup. “Evolution, Creationism, Intelligent Design.” Gallup 6 May. 2012 gallup.com. Web. 4 Feb. 2013.
2. Mooney, Chris and Kirshenbaum, Sheril. “The Formula: Why Don’t Americans Understand Science Better? Start with the Scientists.” The Boston Globe 26 Jul 2009. boston.com. Web. 4. Feb. 2013.
3. Palmer, T.N. and Hardaker, P.J. “Handling Uncertainty in Science.” Philosophpical Transactions of the Royal Society 31 Oct. 2011. royalsocietypublishing.org. Web. 4 Feb. 2013.
4. Salzberg, Steven. “Congress Holds An Anti-Vaccination Hearing.” Forbes Magazine 3 Dec. 2012: Forbes Magazine Online. Web. 4 Feb. 2013.

Elizabeth Schiavoni is a senior at Georgetown University majoring in the Biology of Global Health. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.