Posted BY: Thomas J. Bruno
It’s easy for those who disagreed with COVID policies over the last few years to forget that Dr. Anthony Fauci was once both a respected scientist (his work has been cited an astounding 233,830 times at this writing) in his field and an effective administrator. History, though, probably won’t be kind to his last three years on the job, and that’s because he forgot what it means to be a scientist.
I am a scientist, or at least I was a scientist until I retired after forty years in research. Now, I mostly write textbooks, and handbooks, edit journals, and occasionally teach. I mean by “scientist” that, after too many years in school, I worked in government and university labs, mainly on fundamental energy projects. I got to learn, up close, what the business of science was all about.
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I can boil it down to a simple idea. The job of a scientist is two things and two things only: measurement and uncertainty. Scientific results in every field depend on our ability to measure something: a temperature, a reaction rate, a voltage, a response of some kind. We can then draw a conclusion or test a theory with those measurements. But no measurement ever made by humans is exact; none at all. All measurements have uncertainty.
Uncertainty (mathematically) describes the confidence we have in the measurement we made. For example, we may measure the temperature of the room as 20 °C, but we know that the uncertainty of the measurement is due to the thermometer only being capable of giving the temperature to within 1 °C. This might be stated succinctly as: T = 20 °C ± 1 °C. We can read this as twenty degrees plus or minus one degree. A measurement that does not assess the uncertainty is a job only half done.