Thursday, June 1, 2023

Embrace the unknown: the benefits of learning to live with uncertainty

We are experiencing now the greatest uncertainty humanity has ever known.” Nine years ago, this statement by Yuval Harari provoked explosive laughter from my teenage daughter. She whispered to me, “what about the blitz? The Black Death? Come on …” I was torn between embarrassment, as heads scowled at a young woman who clearly didn’t know her place, and pride in her critical thinking. That instinctive rejection of Harari’s generational narcissism was valid then and more than justified today: 2014 was a cakewalk compared to 2022.

Uncertainty is a mental state brought on when we know we don’t know something about the future. So it’s different from ignorance because, when we feel uncertain, we have enough information to glean how much more we are missing. We know climate change is real but not in enough detail to decide whether to buy sandbags or move house. Epidemiologists are fully confident there will be future epidemics but not when or what the pathogen will be. There is no shortage of data, there’s too much! And it’s ambiguous, susceptible to a wide range of interpretations. The defining characteristic of uncertainty is that, unlike risk, it is unquantifiable. Probability can’t capture its ambiguity or complexity. What we do know, for certain, is that this leaves us deeply uncomfortable.

That pain is observable. Neuroscientists can identify that it sparks a stress response; behavioural economists note that it delays decision making. Psychologists, in their frequently demonic experiments, demonstrate that we are calmer knowing something bad is definitely heading our way (say, an electric shock) than when there’s a possibility we might just escape it. Uncertainty is so painful we are happier with doom than doubt.

And that’s when we are most susceptible to promises of certainty, however bogus. We frequently turn to history in the belief that “history repeats itself” – an article of faith not shared by professional historians, and for good reason. The history we make today is informed by knowledge which our forebears lacked; we know what they did and how things turned out and that influences what we do next. So it can’t repeat itself precisely.

In the 1960s, the Johnson administration’s frequent comparisons of Vietnam to Nazi Germany imbued that war with moral righteousness and implied inevitable success. The South Vietnamese were just like Americans, thirsting for democracy, while the fascist aggressors of the north were set on world domination, which is how, secretary of state Robert MacNamara later confessed, the government reached confident “misjudgments of friend and foe alike”. It isn’t that we can’t learn from history but that we are drawn to the narratives that flatter us most.

In economics, models frequently replace uncertainty with the confidence of prediction. But, as models, they leave out a lot; they have to, otherwise they would be as big (and uncertain) as the world itself. The Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Shiller acknowledged as much when he speculated that the data that had not made it into his models might be more important than the data that had.

New technology, able to handle mountains of data, takes models to extremes, claiming to master everything from transport systems to personal relationships. The amount of money made from apps that promise certainty – you must be healthy, you walked 10,000 steps – is a surrogate marker for just how intolerant of uncertainty we have become. There’s a risk here, known as the Technology Paradox: the capabilities we outsource to technology – whether it’s remembering phone numbers or counting steps – we lose in ourselves. The more we let technology think for us, the less we think.

Promises of certainty underestimate the pervasive contingencies that define human lives. That even identical twins develop different immune systems beautifully illustrates the impact that the slightest fluke can make in our lives, in ourselves.

As physicist Carlo Rovelli argues, scientists are driven by doubt, more inspired by questions than answers. While citing “the science” sounds like the hallmark of confidence, scientists know that science is only the best we know… so far. “Between full ignorance and total certainty,” Rovelli says, “is a vast intermediate space where we conduct our lives.”

That space of uncertainty is also the territory occupied by artists. Every aspect of their lives is fragile; vulnerable to fashion, attention, luck. Most lack even the institutional support that scientists enjoy. Yet even the bleakest among them share a fundamental optimism in the value of making.

That “vast intermediate space” of ambiguity and uncertainty is also the territory occupied by artists. Almost every aspect of their lives is vulnerable to the vicissitudes of fashion, attention, luck. Most lack even the institutional support that scientists enjoy. How to work, what to work on, assessing what’s been made. These are the questions that suffuse every artist’s career. They start with nothing, mostly without being asked, and sail into the unknown with a passion to make something. Even the bleakest among them share a fundamental optimism in the value of making. Every word, every note, every colour is a decision which is also a hypothesis: I think this is what will mean that. They turn away from the predictable, eschewing certainty and reach out to what Toni Morrison calls their “co-conspirators”: the minds of others in whom, as connection is made, the work of art springs to life.

We need to sit with uncertainty, not run from it. Acknowledging with confidence and courage that lack of knowledge is what drives our curiosity, uncovering new understanding. Our craving for certainty often makes us ignore what is important, those small doubts that whisper: maybe we can’t cut costs further, perhaps the drugs don’t work, is the building safe? If, by letting go of our craving for certainty, we retrieve a sense of our capacity to make something – of ourselves, of each other, of the world – we can discover the benefits of doubt.

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