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Appreciation of Uncertainty Grows with Deeper Knowledge

“Although this may seem a paradox, all exact science is dominated by the idea of approximation. When a man tells you he knows the exact truth about anything, you are safe in inferring that he is an inexact man. … It is characteristic of those matters in which something is known with exceptional accuracy that, in them, every observer admits that he is likely to be wrong, and knows about how much wrong he is likely to be.”

The Scientific Outlook, Bertrand Russell, 1931, Norton, pp 63-64.

Except for the gendered pronouns, this 1930’s quote still rings true. But the limitation of the observation to science is probably not legitimate. For example, scholars in the humanities who are investigating the intended meaning of texts usually hold uncertainties about the currently favored interpretations. Indeed, deep understanding of any field generally entails knowledge of all the disputed truths, rejected theories, and partial replications of prior findings. This knowledge leavens one convictions.

In this regard, scholarly cultures are quite distinct from much of modern society. It would be unusual for an entrepreneur pitching a new idea to a set of venture capitalists to emphasize the unknowns in their startup’s plans. In place of that, the “fail fast” culture argues to react quickly to counter-evidence and morph the idea to adapt to the new knowledge. But the “fail fast, break things, disrupt” culture rewards certainty of action. As another example, today’s modern media presentations tend not to emphasize uncertainties. The talking heads on cable news speak with certainty on all their views. Their “opponent” talking head speaks opposite points with equal certainty. Rare is the politician who details the uncertainties surrounding any policy position. Indeed, the admission of ignorance about some facet of the topic at hand is not often seen in the public sphere.

In this regard, it is interesting to note the social psychological literature on persuasive conversations. A common finding is that speakers are judged more persuasive when, on their own, they introduce a counter argument to their own argument and then refute it. This is judged more influential in discerning what is true than speaker attempting to rebut the counterargument after another raises it first. This finding doesn’t seem to have penetrated public discourse. However, it is common in scholarly work to actively discuss the limitations of a study’s findings prior to reporting the findings themselves.

This mismatch between the larger society’s norms of persuasive behavior and that of scholars seems, however, in some situations to limit scholars’ influence. Decisions must be made. They must be made on the facts available at the time of the decision regardless of how inadequate they might be. Decisions under uncertainty are the most common to be made. Enumerating all the sources of uncertainty about current knowledge often doesn’t lead to effective decisions.

So much of these differences are a matter of style of dialogue. Wouldn’t be interesting if media moderators would ask their talking head guests what uncertainties they have about their opinions, what could happen that makes their predictions of the future wrong, what information would be required to change their minds?

And then on the scholarly side, despite all the attention that is given to the uncertainties in their findings, wouldn’t be interesting to force those well-versed in the uncertainties to make the decision based on the current state of knowledge?

Finally, how precious to all of us are the minds that can move back and forth between these two domains with equal facility!

5 thoughts on “Appreciation of Uncertainty Grows with Deeper Knowledge

  1. Great discussion. As someone once said “ the more I know I know the Less I know I know.” Or another piece of wisdom that comes to mind “ God gave man two ears and one mouth to show that one should be used twice as much as the other .” I agree that the most convincing argument is given by someone who presents both sides of issues. Nobody likes or is convinced of something by a know it all!

  2. How gratifying to see the provostial mind praise the epistemic value of uncertainty, something that we thespians encounter from the getgo when we tell actors to think about the ” subtext ” of their character’s proclamations. I am also reminded of a Yiddish joke about two old friends, one of whom is demonstrating anguish because, although he has been inspired by the Almighty to discover a wonderful answer, he cannot for the life of him discover the question … One of the true beauties of the academic endeavor is the realization that on matters of fundamental import, the question will always be more productive of creative thinking than the haste to find and display an answer.

  3. The “moving back and forth between those two domains with equal facility” is one of the advantages of utilizing Comprehensive Policy Analysis, for both scholars and decision makers (and for “talking heads”).

    In addition to exercising humility concerning the accuracy of our descriptive and predictive analysis, it is also helpful to present (with humility) the normative analysis (referring to the various values of the various policy actors and how those values affect judgments about the current and predicted situations) — this is the point at which the “talking heads” often talk over each others’ heads (they say something is bad or good without referring to which values inform their judgments and without referring to the values informing the judgments of their opponents who could become their allies in those cases in which a compromise to address each others’ values might be possible). Finally, prescriptive analysis forces the analyst to recommend a decision (even if it does include us economists allowing for an “on the other hand”).

    Valuing the facility for moving back and forth between the scholarly domain and the policy domain, I recommend Comprehensive Policy Analysis (consisting of descriptive, predictive, normative and prescriptive analyses).

  4. Richard Rohr is known for his use of the term, The Third Way. He discusses this from a spiritual perspective, yet the tenets translate directly to the organizational, leadership, and human levels. The Third Way is a way of seeing, being, and doing that in this case honors the difference between knowing and uncertainty, excludes neither, and embraces both.

    It is difficult and therefore truly precious to see and stand in this place of the Third Way. When dealing with a paradoxical and unsolvable tension like this one, we typically have a preference for one “pole” over the other – it may be slight, it may be strong, but there is a “pole” that we feel a bit more comfortable embracing. The very act of stepping away from our preferred pole and into the Third Way can be uncomfortable and even scary.

    The minds (and hearts) that “can move back and forth between these two domains with equality facility” are precious and necessary to successfully navigate cultural contexts and organizational environments that have become more global, uncertain, and complex. These dynamic tensions or what might be experienced as contradictory demands are intensifying. To navigate (rather than suffer from) such tensions we would all be well served by adopting a paradox or polarity lens.

    It makes me wonder what would be possible in the media, in academia, in organizations, in the world if we were able to braid together certainty with uncertainty, humility with confidence, and inquiry with advocacy to have conversations with one another from the Third Way?

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