Certainty is a funny thing. You might think the idea of certainty naturally admits that things are subjective, that absolute proof is difficult, and that beliefs must be updated to reflect changing evidence. But that isn’t how we practice certainty—instead of signaling a spectrum of probable truth, it seems to have become an arbiter of validity.
When someone is certain, that should be a commentary on the evidence they have for a position. Somehow, though, certainty has been divorced from that spectrum of evidence. Instead of certainty being the extreme end, it has become the correct end; the rest of the spectrum is collapsed and we are left with the binary of certainty and uncertainty. It that strange dichotomous world, anything uncertain isn’t worth considering—as though lack of absolutism frees us from any tether to the real world.
You can see the collapse of the spectrum in action on any really contentious political issue, especially issues that require major changes in public policy or issues that threaten deeply-held ideologies. Climate change is real, and happening, and caused by people—for all intents and purposes. With 99% certainty. Of course there is a margin of error, because science wisely does not and cannot collapse the spectrum. A pundit on cable TV will happily collapse their own uncertainty into absolute terms, even if their evidence warrants no certainty at all. A scientist, to the great frustration of the media, will highlight the uncertainty in even the most solid evidence.
And of course politicians manufacture certainty in service of rhetoric; they happily leap from conflicting position to conflicting position with no allegiance to evidence or truth. Somehow, their forceful declarations are taken as proof of their rightness.
When President Obama says he will close Guantanamo Bay Prison, the media report this as if he will, and the evidence of his repeated failure is but a footnote. But if he says he will try to close it depending on a variety of factors, who will listen?
Donald Trump presents ideas with even less tether to the real world—perhaps no tether at all—and his supporters laud his ability to tell it like it isn’t, but how they wish it were.
Yet, I don’t think the fault lies with them. Politicians are mirrors, and whether they reflect our own cognitive dissonance or our unwillingness to commit to our ideals, they are still reflecting. They aren’t likely to change. So I think the onus is on us to judge their evidence and their nuance rather than their certainty. What use is it to criticize someone for changing their position? They will only refuse to change later even when the evidence demands it. What use is it for us to value a leader based on their certainty when that certainty isn’t called for? They will only lead us to disaster because they were too set in their own ideology to question.
Our idolatry of certainty is well-sown, and the rewards we reap in our leaders are well-earned. So I take the opposite position: I don’t think we should measure our scientists by whether they are sure, and I don’t think we should measure our politicians by how little they change their minds, and I don’t think we should measure one another’s ideas by how absolutely they are framed.
Instead, to me, the best idea is the one that is presented with some uncertainty. If someone is uncertain, that tells me that they are looking at the real world and acknowledging their limited and subjective perspective. It tells me that they care about how much their ideas match the evidence around them, and that they know there are things they don’t yet understand. It tells me that they can adapt when the world, as it always does, changes out from under them.
To me, uncertainty is almost sure to be a better match with the truth. Thus certainty, not uncertainty, is the sign of weakness of mind. Certainty is a brittle, imposing creature that, by its very nature, rejects testing. Certainty, rather than proving our authority, proves our ignorance.
Image Credit: Thomas Hoffmann