10 January 2019

Getting it right by being uncertain

Certainty for humans is like a flame is to a moth.

Blind instinct takes us there, but we may well get burnt.

We might get more things right in this world if we were a little less certain about everything.

How can we avoid the trap of certainty?

The wrongs of the righteous

There's no lack of certainty in the world, and lots of evidence that despite that certainty, we're wrong!

Look at the many things that we have been told by our parents, public health and other paternalistic authorities which are simply not supported by the evidence:
  1. we need to drink 8 glasses of water a day - untrue and from an uncertain source, with overhydration (hyponatraemia) being more likely to kill us
  2. eating grain is good for you, eating fat is bad for you - yet the evidence suggests the reverse: carbohydrate intake is associated with higher mortality and fat intake with lower mortality!
  3. don't miss breakfast - but intermittent fasting can provide multiple benefits
  4. sugar makes kids hyper - a product of parental hyperactive fears more than any hyperactivity in the child (sugar's harm is more longterm - see #2).
  5. peptic ulcers can't be caused by bacteria - a myth busted spectacularly by WA-based scientists Barry Marshall & Robin Warren
Most of these rules have primarily personal consequences, but much the same kind of certainty underlies rules guiding behaviors that may (or may not) have more public consequences such as
  1. drugs - we laugh at the hyperbolic claims about marijuana as shown in the 1936 film Reefer Madness, but remain highly fearful (and blithely ill-informed) about illicit drugs in general
  2. alcohol - various prohibitions and regulations have been imposed to limit the distribution and consumption of alcohol but have typically failed and even created problems (e.g., organized crime)
  3. sex - social disapproval for various sexual practices has and continues to exist: pre-marital sex, illegitimate children, masturbation, adultery, divorce ("broken homes"), homosexuality, online dating, hookups, polyamory, kink, etc.
Then we can move to the broader moral systems which proscribe a vast range of behaviors related to drugs, alcohol, sex and more such as food and meat, music, prayer, etc. Yes, Religion. And here, the potential wrongs of the righteous are writ large. 

Freedom of religion allows individuals to pursue whatever flavor of religion that they like. The paradox is that such freedom also permits religions which like to restrict what everyone else can do. And here is where the wrongs emerge.

Take Islam and Christianity and Judaism as examplars. They are striking in their similarities. 

They all share a belief that there is only one god. 

They also share a lack of non-human (i.e., non-scriptural) artefacts as evidence for their belief that there is only one god. 

And they are remarkably similar in that they are all certain that the others are worshipping a false god.

At least one of these three religions is wrong. Maybe all three!

The pull of certainty

Is it human nature to embrace certainty? 

I think so. In fact, I'm almost certain!

Certainty however, is not about being right. It is about feeling right.

But is not certainty built upon evidence? Yes, but the role of evidence is ambiguous. 

In creating beliefs, evidence is examined in order to formulate nascent beliefs, call them hypotheses. 

However, these hypotheses quickly become certainties - the process by which this happens as inevitable as it is mysterious. Contributing factors might include the amount of evidence accumulated (but it still takes just one black swan to disprove the truth that all swans are white), length of time the tentative belief has been held, and how important it is to be right.  

In the early stages of building beliefs, evidence is the foundation on which we build our tentative hypotheses.

In the later stages, evidence is used as a strut to bolster our corroded-on beliefs, call them certainties.

And certainty is where the problems begin. If I do not agree with your unshakeable belief, then I will label you a fanatic, extremist, zealot, bigot, etc.  

The irony of course, is that my labelling of your views as unsupported and unjustified is often little more than evidence of my own fanatical, extremist, zealous, and bigoted views!

Here is the heart of the "problem" of certainty.

It is difficult to agree to disagree if I am certain that your certain view will stuff up my life, or vice versa.

Skepticism feels weak

Certainty is like an emotion, a powerful, instinctive force.  But like the emotions of anger or love, it can be a fuel for excesses.

Skepticism (or uncertainty) is like reason, it applies a brake to the passion of certainty. It requires more thought, it is slower, it is available - but only if bidden - as a means of tempering the rash and wild pull of certainty.

Or adapting Jonathan Haidt's metaphor, certainty is the elephant, skepticism is the rider.

Certainty has a big, booming voice; reason's voice is plaintive and remote.

It is easy to see why certainty is easier to sell than uncertainty. 

Good rhetoric is powerful and authoritative - even if wrong. 

Good reason is always open to challenge and seems rather insipid.

Skepticism advises that we ignore our "feeling" of certainty, for we can never be certain of anything.  But then, skepticism also insists that this claim itself is uncertain!

Certainty serves the ego, while uncertainty unseats the soul - as it should. "The soul should always stand ajar" (Emily Dickinson)

Action with uncertainty

Perhaps the greatest criticism of skepticism is that it does not support action. 

Uncertainty leads to waffling, prevarication, procrastination and paralyzed decision making.

However, it is possible to engage in action while remaining uncertain.

Parents do this all the time. When two children are fighting, they seek to separate them, and perhaps send them to separate areas on the home.

"But I didn't start it!" is the inevitable complaint from one or both.

"I don't know who started it, but the fighting will be stopped."

This is a decision that acknowledges uncertainty of who started it, while action aimed at a desirable outcome. The peaceful outcome is not certain, but the action can be revised.

Making decisions while remaining uncertainty around the causal factors is now practiced in legal systems.

The principle of no-fault divorce avoid claims about cause, and focuses on resolution - without retribution.

The key is for decisions to be made acknowledging uncertainty about the outcome, and not even tackling uncertainty about the causal factors.

Getting it right by being uncertain

I think that holding onto uncertainty is useful.

And I acknowledge that having certainty feels comfortable.

And it may be comforting for the individual, but certainty permits no counter-evidence. Certainty is closed to discussion.

Certainty is the fortress of the self-serving.

A more practical solution is to hang on to uncertainty about the outcomes, and ignore the often controversial uncertainty about the causes, who is to blame, who ought to fix it, etc.

Certainty is about "feeling" right, decisions are about right action.

I can still make decisions, and hold uncertainty.

I should determine the options, assess the outcomes (ignore the antecedent factors, and especially those which oversimplify cause), and act - wholeheartedly. And be prepared to acknowledge that perhaps I was wrong.

Hold onto uncertainty. It is useful.

But I might be wrong.

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