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How It Makes Science Advance

Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain

Publication Date - 07 November 2019

ISBN: 9780190871666

272 pages
5 x 7 inches

In Stock


Scientific knowledge is the most solid and robust kind of knowledge that humans have because of the self-correcting character inherent in its own processes. Nevertheless, anti-evolutionists, climate denialists, and anti-vaxxers, among others, question some of the best-established scientific findings, making claims that are unsupported by empirical evidence. A common aspect of these claims is the reference to the uncertainties in these areas of research, which leads to the conclusion that science is uncertain about evolution, climate change, and vaccination, among others. The truth of the matter is that while the broad picture is clear, there exist--and will always exist--uncertainties about the details of the respective phenomena. In this book Kampourakis and McCain show that uncertainty is an inherent feature of science that does not devalue it. In contrast, uncertainty actually makes science advance because it motivates further research.

The first book of its kind, Uncertainty draws on philosophy of science to explain what uncertainty in science is and how it makes science advance. It contrasts evolution, climate change, and vaccination, where the uncertainties are exaggerated, to genetic testing and forensic science where the uncertainties are usually overlooked. Kampourakis and McCain discuss the scientific, psychological, and philosophical aspects of uncertainty in order to explain what it is really about, what kind of problems it actually poses, and why it ultimately makes science advance. Contrary to the public representations of scientific findings and conclusions that produce an intuitive but distorted view of science as certain, we need to understand and learn to live with uncertainty in science.


  • Provides an accessible and comprehensive introduction to the role of uncertainty in science for anyone interested in the nature of science and how it advances
  • Explains the kinds of uncertainty that are inherent in five well-known fields of research: human evolution, climate change, vaccination, genetic testing, and forensic science
  • Argues why and how uncertainty actually fuels the scientific endeavour and makes science advance by producing genuine understanding

About the Author(s)

Kostas Kampourakis is the author and editor of several books about evolution, genetics, philosophy, and history of science. From 2015 to 2019 he was the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Science & Education. He is currently a researcher at the University of Geneva, where he also teaches at the Section of Biology and the University Institute for Teacher Education (http://kampourakis.com)

Kevin McCain is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His research is primarily focused on epistemology and philosophy of science, particularly where the two intersect. He is a series editor for Routledge Studies in Epistemology and the author of numerous works in epistemology and philosophy of science.


"The concept of uncertainty affords an excellent subject, as all scientific endeavors begin with an attempt to eliminate uncertainty through non-scientific trials. There would be no need to explore things scientifically if certainty existed. This book also examines the psychology of uncertainty. The authors consider numerous significant domains, e.g., climate, vaccination, genetic testing and others, pointing out that science thrives on uncertainty." -- F. W. Yow, emeritus, Kenyon College, Choice

"Accepting the ubiquity of uncertainty in science is a start, but learning how to not let uncertainty get in the way of understanding is the critical next step. This book emphasises that latter goal in a way that can inform both students and their instructors. The book makes a rigorous effort to define what it terms 'genuine' scientific understanding and to contrast that effortful, evidence-based end-point with the kind of common-sense, perceived understanding that we embrace in our day-to-day lives. All told, though.... an excellent and readable treatment of uncertainty. It offers a good starting point for scholars who seek an introduction to the concept, and it should find its way onto reading lists in courses from communication to the sciences." -- Public Understanding of Science

"This book provides a conceptual framework for uncertainty, shows how uncertainty is endemic to science, and explains for nonscientists how to better understand both science and uncertainty. Written by a science education researcher, and a philospher of science, it is impressively accessible and competent about the conduct and content of actual science. I heartily recommend it." -- Quarterly Review of Biology

"Through case studies that include climate science, vaccination, and human evolution, Kampourakis and McCain emphasize not only why uncertainty is inherent to the continual advancement of science, but also how a misunderstanding of this fact is repeatedly used by special interests to mislead the public. With quotations from an impressively wide range of sources - from philosophers to outstanding scientists - this short book will motivate its readers to think deeply about what is meant by 'scientific understanding', as well as to explore the valuable references that are cited, many of which they would otherwise miss." --Bruce Alberts, Chancellor's Leadership Chair in Biochemistry and Biophysics for Science and Education, University of California, San Francisco, Former Editor-in-Chief, Science magazine (2008-2013), President Emeritus, US National Academy of Sciences (1993-2005)

"Kampourakis and McCain have produced a provocative book of enumerable insights. They have navigated skillfully through a bramble bush of prickly problems and come out of it with a coherent analysis of science that elevates the concept of "uncertainty" without diminishing the standing of science. As one trained in and familiar with the scholarship of philosophy of science, I appreciated every line of inquiry and every argument in the book. To me it brings together philosophy of science, social psychology and the social studies of science in a way that explains human behavior and irrational skepticism towards strongly supported scientific claims." --Sheldon Krimsky, Lenore Stern Professor of Humanities & Social Sciences, Tufts University

"This is a wonderfully clear and engaging book on a very important and topical issue: How can science contribute to solving the problems society faces today? The cases are well chosen and the philosophical chapters do a great job in synthesizing many insights from recent philosophy of science into a coherent whole. The book succeeds admirably in showing the societal relevance of philosophical reflection on science." -- Henk de Regt, Professor of Philosophy of Science, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

"An excellent and readable treatment of uncertainty. It offers a good starting point for scholars who seek an introduction to the concept, and it should find its way onto reading lists in courses from communication to the sciences." -- Sharon Dunwoody, Public Understanding of Science Blog

Table of Contents


    Part I. Dealing with Uncertainty

    Chapter 1 Uncertainty in Everyday Life
    Chapter 2 The Psychology of (Un)certainty
    Chapter 3 Uncertainty in Science - Isn't It a Problem?
    Chapter 4 In Science We Trust - or Don't We?
    Chapter 5 Is Scientific Rigor Declining?

    Part II. Uncertainties in Science: Some Case Studies

    Chapter 6 Uncertainties in Climate Science
    Chapter 7 Uncertainties in Vaccination
    Chapter 8 Uncertainties in Human Evolution
    Chapter 9 Uncertainties in Genetic Testing
    Chapter 10 Uncertainties in Forensic Science

    Part III. Accepting Uncertainty in Science

    Chapter 11 Uncertainty is Inherent in Science
    Chapter 12 Uncertainty in Scientific Explanation
    Chapter 13 Uncertainty in Scientific Prediction
    Chapter 14 Understanding vs. Being Certain
    Chapter 15 How Uncertainty Makes Science Advance


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