14 February 2014

In defence of uncertainty: Against the wrong of righteousness

Weather to carry an umbrella ?!
In polite conversation, topics like sex, politics, and religion are widely regarded as off-limit. Today, public policy issues like climate change and public health (vaccinations, naturopathic medicines, fast food marketing, etc.) also provoke such polemic that useful debate is impeded.

It is not the topic that is the problem. 
It is that positive, meaningful conversation on these topics descends all too quickly from a meaningful dialogue to dogmatism, from disagreement to disagreeableness.

How do you turn an intelligent conversation into a ideological battle? Allow participants to advance confidently held, but opposing beliefs while assiduously denying uncertainty.

Contrary to popular belief, you are not entitled to your opinion argues Patrick Stokes. Rather, you are only entitled to those beliefs which are supported by good and valid reasons.

However, the quiet voice of reason is often in danger of being overwhelmed by the boisterous, overbearing bellows of rigid righteousness. 
So let's be reasonable, and here's why.

Uncertainty is inevitable

Aristotle noted that It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

So share this thought with me. Consider the question of whether it will rain tomorrow?

A weather forecast provides an answer for a local area, an answer that most accept as far from certain. And if it is a forecast for a week from now or a month hence, we would allow an even greater degree of uncertainty.

However, forecasts of global climate change years and decades into the future are often presented and defended by an unreasonably strong level of confidence with little allowance for uncertainty.

Anyone offering data or interpretations that challenge the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming are met with righteous indignation and are speedily dismissed as climate-change deniers.

Doubt does not equal denial.

The first wrong of the righteous is to draw a false dichotomy, a point vividly illustrated by religion, one of the topics so frequently excluded from polite conversation.

The Christians and Moslems have argued for centuries both with one another and even among themselves, as to whose conception of the monotheistic god is the true one.

Curiously, it was not until 1869 that T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, coined the term agnostic to distinguish an entirely separate position capturing the idea of one who denies any belief for lack of knowledge.

Righteousness is a dead end

The second wrong of the righteous is to deny alternative views and creative solutions.

Matt Ridley has observed (along with others) that there is good reason to believe that global warming will lead to both benefits and costs, and importantly, that the benefits of modest global warming could greatly outweigh the costs. He notes that the positives of global climate change are underreported and frequently dismissed.

Righteousness may preserve itself, but sadly it preserves a falsehood just as successfully as a truth.

Doubt is a method that admits and encourages alternative views and will lead the seeker towards what is true and away from what is false.

As Huxley explains it, doubt is “not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle” that is to follow reason as far it can take you.

Mathematician and philosopher of science W.K. Clifford notes in his 1877 essay on “The Ethics of Belief” that “it is wrong always, everywhere and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

Admitting uncertainty, allowing a position for doubt can help break the canting and bullying of the dogmatists.

The pragmatic challenge

Academics, scientists, intellectuals and others like them thrive on exploring the unknown. Even better is proving that what we think we know is actually false.

However, uncertainty is anathema to everyday life. Tis human to believe, even if erroneously.

Holding beliefs is important for pragmatic reasons. But beliefs are not necessarily truths. This is evident at a personal level, but also more disturbingly evident at the level of public policy.

In reality, truth is rather more scarce than might be implied by belief. Action requires belief, but this does not require that belief be blind to reason.

Doubt demands a hearing

There are three sides to an argument – for, against, and doubt.

Sadly, doubt, or the neutral position, typically attracts the wrath of both those for and against.

The focus on being ‘right’ rather than being ‘reasonable’ denies the reality of uncertainty, and overlooks the middle-ground, the domain of doubt.

This is disappointing as only doubt encourages reason. Righteousness denies reason. As Socrates points out, the man who knows that he does not know and does not believe he knows is wiser than he who thinks he knows but in fact knows nothing (Apology 21d).

To condemn others for simply holding a different view from our own is both disagreeable and unhelpful.

Doubt is the seed for discussion, uncovers falsehoods and leads towards truth.

Disagreement is a fruitful means for advancing knowledge. Disagreeableness is not.

Now, let us return to our conversation.


  1. How come you don't seem to get any comments?

  2. Great point. More comments please everyone - I love 'em - good or bad. Let's have a conversation.

    1. I find this piece totally sensible but it challenges most people who, unlike me, think they know something for sure. History shows they can hardly be sure what happened yesterday. Pointing out things to people that that seem to be bleedingly obvious doesn't encourage change only irritation.
      Nowadays I am more inclined to sit back and listen with curiosity and a degree of detachment. I rarely tilt at windmills.. A sad state of affairs.

  3. Yes, the challenge is to inspire the change and not the irritation. Tough one. Maybe I'm just tilting at windmills !