“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!