The dangers of certainty are not just theoretical
Paul F. de Lespinasse
Certainty can be dangerous if we seek it before acting, but certainty can also be dangerous if we think we have it.
Imagine flying a loaded 747 when the plane begins to behave erratically. The model does not match the situations you have encountered before and it is not a model for which your training provides a solution.
If you had an hour to think it over, you might be pretty sure what to do. But you will crash if you don’t fix the problem in about a minute.
Obviously, you can’t afford to wait for certainty of what to do here. You take a look at the instruments most likely to indicate what’s going on, adjust the controls to do what you think is most likely to save the day, and see what happens. The reaction of the aircraft can give you additional information, allowing still further actions. Good luck!
Political leaders are constantly confronted with similar situations: unprecedented developments that no one had anticipated: depressions and Pearl Harbors (Franklin D. Roosevelt), 9/11 (George W. Bush), pandemics (Donald Trump). Although they don’t have to respond within a minute, leaders cannot afford to wait to be sure what they need to do.
Leadership is therefore inherently experimental. The leader tries something, sees how it works, and then if necessary tries something else. Franklin D. Roosevelt was a master in this field.
There is an even greater danger than waiting for certainty: Both rulers and ordinary citizens are so sure of ideas or facts that they ignore the possibility that they are wrong.
Assuming our ideas are 100% correct, it’s hard for us to come up with better ideas or change our actions when things aren’t working out the way we thought they were. This assumption reinforces our tendency to succumb to “confirmation bias” in which we notice information supporting our current thinking and ignore information that undermines it.
Philosophers have long understood this danger. Socrates argued that “to be uncertain is to be uncomfortable, but to be certain is to be ridiculous.” Millennia later, Voltaire agreed that “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”
This point is not only theoretical but has immediate application in the United States today.
To hide or not to hide? That is the question.
Some people think that wearing a mask is a good idea because it can be good for yourself or others. This belief is either correct or incorrect.
Others believe that wearing a mask will not do anyone any good. Again, this conclusion is either correct or incorrect.
But people on both sides of this question must be asking themselves a simple question: what if I’m wrong?
Obviously, someone is wrong here. But which belief, if wrong, has the biggest drawback if implemented?
If those who think wearing a mask is helpful are wrong, there is little harm in wearing a mask. Although some people exaggerate the physical or emotional damage that wearing masks can cause, there is little harm shown in wearing them.
But if people who think that wearing a mask is useless are wrong, their failure to wear a mask would be extremely detrimental. Contributing to the serious illness or premature death of other people is not something most of us would like to have on our minds.
Remember that our mask’s primary protection is for other people around us, and our primary protection comes from their masks. (Our vaccination, on the other hand, mainly protects us, but also protects others.)
In these circumstances, the reasonable thing to do is to wear a mask at appropriate times, whether we believe it will do good or not, and to comply with government or private requirements to wear masks.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He can be contacted at [email protected]