Insights from geology on incomplete information, uncertainty, and problem solving

Came across the following in the new issue of the Geological Society of America journal for members. A basic notion is that frequently a set of facts we know, or can know, are open to multiple interpretations, any or all of which might be true. When we come at a situation from multiple perspectives, each with its own set of facts, these taken together may set constraints that specify one true interpretation. The GSA article describes how that’s frequently the case in geology, And it goes further regarding uncertainty and incomplete knowledge in general. Seems that the following applies not only to geology and science, but should be included in the book and educational curriculum Roger Conner and I are writing on strategic policy advocacy:

Saltus, Richard W., and Richard J. Blakely. “Unique geologic insights from ‘non-unique’ gravity and magnetic interpretation.” GSA Today 21, no. 12 (December 2011): 4-10.

… Many of the greatest scientific challenges of today span the traditional subdivisions of science. Climate change research, for example, spans Earth, atmospheric,  and biological sciences and requires the combination of results from physics, chemistry, biology, geology, engineering, sociology, and economics. A key component to successful integrated science is the effective communication and mutual understanding of uncertainties arising in all of the component studies that feed into the ultimate integrated solution. But, it is also important to realize that the ultimate significance of a given result is not necessarily related to the relative certainty of that result. A partial solution or constraint to a fundamental problem may have greater significance than an exact solution to a trivial problem. And an effective integrated solution may encompass a wide range of uncertainties in the component results. To paraphrase Aristotle: The whole (integrated interpretation) is greater than the sum of its parts (methods and assumptions). And, we might add, the individual parts do not necessarily contribute equally to the sum. …

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