The Certainty of Uncertainty

I had the pleasure of being invited to dinner the other day by friends we have known for almost 20 years. Among their guests was a person with whom I had real difficulty communicating. The chief difficulty was that he seemed so certain of all his opinions, that there seemed to be little room for discussion. The situation was perhaps more difficult because we disagree on many important issues.

Garrison Keillor has famously contrasted the uncertainty of the wishy-washy liberal with the certainty possessed by the conservative, and stereotypical as it may be, it rather aptly captured the differences between the two of us across the dinner table. He is not only conservative (“not progressive” was his self-identification), but he also works in law enforcement. I, in contrast, am a designer, a polymath, a lifelong explorer, and am riddled with uncertainty.

It struck me as I was trying to process the conversations we had, that there are jobs which really require decisiveness, confidence, and certainty. My guess is that law enforcement is one of them. If you’re going into danger and conflict, clarity and certainty can inspire compliance, and provide direction to people otherwise lost in the emotions of the moment. I suspect that certainty is an asset for a soldier in the theater of war, for the same reasons. Understand the mission, buy in, commit, do what needs to be done. Similar conditions probably obtain for an emergency room physician, who must act promptly to save lives.

But there are other jobs where ambiguity, nuance, introspection, and a healthy suspicion of received facts are a great asset. Designers, scientists, writers, journalists, artists, and teachers all live with the need to enter into uncharted territory, with a sensitivity to the subtlety of what is involved, rather than a need to power through. Insight comes from skepticism, curiosity, questioning, intuition, and a willingness to sit with unknowing, until insight emerges from the fog.

We all need certainty, and we all have to live with uncertainty. The more uncertain our environment, the more we crave certainty. What else can explain the rise of Donald Trump, who offers an easy confidence that he will “make America great again”, without providing a lot of policy backup. People who feel that the world is falling apart, want someone solid to grasp onto – a rock in a sea of concern and uncertainty.

At the same time, it’s good to be able to live with doubt. It creates humility. There are, in reality, few things about which we can be certain. We act when the probability is high that we know what’s going on. Gamblers, military leaders, authors and adventurers, all make decisions when they think the time is right, knowing that there is much that is as yet unclear. Policy makers do the same. We act not from certainty, but from confidence that, having weighed the uncertainties, the preponderance of evidence tells us what we need to do. We have high confidence in the science of climate change, and we should act upon it, just as our government acted upon lead in gasoline, and the cancer-causing dangers of smoking. It’s too easy to say “the jury is still out”, or “the science is not yet clear”.

So whether our predilection is to certainty or uncertainty, there is a point at which we must take action to make the world a better place. On that, both sides must learn to be certain.


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