Uncertainty = Anxiety = Bonkers = Phony Experts

Jimmy scared

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert has a brilliant short piece in today’s Times about the fear that is engendered by uncertainty.  He cites some fascinating studies in which subjects, to avoid or escape uncertainty,  are willing to choose undesirable, yet clear and immediate,  outcomes. The horror you know seems to trump an unknown future in which things might actually turn out to not be so bad.

How true! Our inability (and I do mean our ) to deal with uncertainty leads us into hole after hole.  I was thinking of one of those holes in particular:

How many self-promoting,  pseudo-experts —  especially those who fill the bottomless news hole of 24 hour cable news —   get airtime solely because, in times of uncertainty and ambiguity, they promise  clarity?  Of course,  they never really deliver it.  But how often do we seize their cockamamie “clarity”  solely because we can’t live without immediate answers?

So many social problems defy easy explanations. Yet we still seem to go bonkers when,  in a hyper-ventilating, instantaneous  information environment,   reporters and public officials fail to deliver quick answers that will sufficiently reduce our anxiety.

Do we know with any certainty the ultimate severity and trajectory of the H1N1 virus?  Do we know why individuals erupt in senseless acts of mass violence? Do we really know why relationships fall apart? Or why hunger persists in a supposedly “developed” country?

In fact, we know a little bit about each of these vexing questions. In some cases we know a lot.

But certainty?  Not a chance.  Serious inquiry can reduce uncertainty and help us approach explanations for complex social phenomena. But it doesn’t provide certainty.

In fact, only one thing seems completely certain to me:  There will never be a social crisis or problem that doesn’t spawn a crowd of  “snake-oil ” hucksters who are all too happy to fill an uncertain void with pet theories,  easy remedies, and ads for the products that will bring us the clarity we seek.

It’s a paradox, but it just might be that one of the most admirable qualities of  an informed citizen in a complex world will be the ability to admit ignorance.  Isn’t self-aware ignorance  infinitely more honest than the bluster of phony certainty?

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