Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The Rage for Certainty

Plaudits for Ilana Redstone for addressing our current rage for certainty. (via Maggie’s Farm) You see it all the time. People are so completely persuaded of the truth of their opinions that they refuse all discussion and debate. 

Whether it is the nine-year-old boy who is absolutely certain that he is a girl, and that anyone who does not agree must be silenced, or the climate change hysteric who insists that the world is coming to an end and that nothing short of shutting down the electrical grid will save us from perdition, the rage for certainty rules our political debate.

As it happens, science, the kind that people are constantly citing as proof that they are totally right, is based on skepticism and doubt. There is no such thing as settled science. There is no such thing as a scientific fact that a good scientist will not doubt. 

If I may, I am happy to quote a real scientist, one Richard Feynman, from his book, The Meaning of It All:

It is necessary and true that all of the things we say in science, all of the conclusions, are uncertain, because they are only conclusions. They are guesses as to what is going to happen, and you cannot know what will happen, because you have not made the most complete experiments. . . .”

“Scientists, therefore, are used to dealing with doubt and uncertainty. All scientific knowledge is uncertain. This experience with doubt and uncertainty is important. I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.

“So what we call scientific knowledge today is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty. Some of them are most unsure; some of them are nearly sure; but none is absolutely certain. Scientists are used to this. We know that it is consistent to be able to live and not know. Some people say, ’How can you live without knowing?’ I do not know what they mean. I always live without knowing.”

Of course, we most often find the rage for certainty in people who want to impose themselves or their beliefs on other people. We also find it among people who are so ignorant that they cannot sustain any level of uncertainty.

As it happens, and as you doubtless know, the rage for absolute certainty dates to a seventeenth century French philosopher, by name of Rene Descartes. Setting out to discover the root of true certainty, Descartes began by throwing everything into doubt. He doubted the evidence of his senses; he doubted his beliefs and his theories; he doubted his interpretations and his perceptions. In the end he discovered that the only thing he could not doubt was-- that he was doubting. But, in order to doubt, he had to have been thinking. So he was certain that he was thinking. From there he deduced that his thinking was responsible for his being.

Like it or not, the rage for certainty is antithetical to the scientific project. Which, one supposes, is the point. Then again, do you really need to know to a certainty whether or not you exist?

Obviously, there are other burning issues here. Do you believe to a certainty that your soul will be saved? Do you believe to a certainty that God exists, or even that God cares about you? Dare we say that such questions do not admit of a scientific survey. 

When the issue is religious dogma, some religions do not allow believers to disbelieve. And yet, the scope of dogma is generally fairly narrow, so perhaps we do better to avoid the issue for now.

But, if we ask the question of whether or not you can know the future to any degree of certainty, we answer that you cannot. This point is the basis for scientific experimentation and for pragmatism. But it also applies to any action that you take. Once you ignore the question of whether you exist and ask what you should do, you will see that you cannot have any absolute certainty about the result of your actions, of the outcome. 

At the roots of modern empirical thinking we find David Hume suggesting that the fact that things have always worked out one way or the other does not guarantee, to a certainty, that they will always work out that way. And we know that Wittgenstein said that tomorrow’s sunrise can never be more than a hypothesis. It cannot be a fact that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow until the sun actually rises in the east tomorrow. The same is obviously true of climate change. 

Similarly, when we undertake a course of action, whether it involves a trip to the market or a new ad campaign or a government policy, we cannot know to a certainty whether any of it will work until it does-- or does not. If you insist that your policy is correct and it does not work out as planned, your certainty will prevent you from making any corrections. Your certainty will cause you to think that your best laid plans have been sabotaged. People who fail to doubt never accept failure. They lack humility and they spend their time and efforts rationalizing the fact that the results they predicted were not the results obtained.

And then there is, as Redstone explains, the issue of misinformation or disinformation. This issue, as I have been wont to point out, assumes that if people have the correct information they will do the right thing. In this case the right thing might involve taking a vaccine, or it might involve voting to shut down the electrical grid. In the larger sense, it says that those who have the right information will all reach the same conclusion and will all believe the same beliefs. If that is not a nutty idea, I do not know what is.

Of course, there is information and there is information. Facts are facts, but not all facts are created equal. If a detective concludes that Col. Mustard has murdered Mr. Boddy in the library with a candlestick, and if he reached this conclusion by evaluating the available evidence-- that is, Col. Mustard’s threats against Mr. Boddy; the presence of the colonel’s fingerprints on the murder weapon, and so on-- he will be obliged, upon learning that the colonel was in the local lockup at the time of the murder, to exonerate his suspect. Some facts are more pertinent than others. 

Saying that anyone who possesses the facts will draw the same conclusion is absurd on its face-- especially since not all facts line up perfectly to point in a single direction. And then there is the question of who decides what is a pertinent fact and what is an impertinent fact.

Appealing to the authority of facts, that is of what someone considers to the most pertinent information, tends inexorably to lead us to accept the authority of the person who has decided, first, what is and is not a fact, and second, which beliefs need to be accepted or rejected on the basis of which facts, and third, which actions or inactions should naturally follow.

So the current rage over certainty, promoted by people who want to exercise power over others and who cannot accept that they might be wrong, signals an intellectually degenerate culture where debate and discussion must be overcome in the interest of granting authority to a single group of individuals, but more so in forcing everyone to believe that this group could not possibly have gotten it wrong.

Call it spin, if you like. Call it messaging, if you prefer. But how many times have we seen our current president and his administration refuse to take any responsibility for anything that is happening on his watch. And how many times have he and his flunkies insisted that all problems, all bad outcomes, all calamities are the fault of someone else.

For many politicians, the rage toward certainty, especially theirs, hides an inability to accept failure and an inability to accept responsibility. It is morally degenerate, at the least.

As Redstone puts it:

The fight against mis- and dis-information—a worthy goal—is often based on two flawed assumptions. The first is that definitive answers are known to the disputed points. The second, related to the first, is that the right people to provide those answers can be identified and agreed upon. Both assumptions are themselves often steeped in the Certainty Trap—a resolute unwillingness to recognize the possibility that we might not be right in our beliefs and claims.


David Foster said...

It's not only in politically-related areas where this phenomenon occurs; I see it in discussions of investing. For example, there is a site called Seeking Alpha at which various stocks, industries, etc are discussed...articles vary in quality, but some of them are very good, better than most analyst reports. I observe that when the prospects for some investment are questioned, quite a few people react with insults and/or anger. This is particularly the case with Apple, though not limited to that stock. Suggest that AAPL may be overvalued, you will likely be accused of either being an idiot or shorting the stock and trying to drive the price down.

A rational person holding a stock would *want* to know if there's an issue with it that he hasn't considered, but apparently many people don't think this way.

Martin said...

We cannot know with certainty that just because every other attempt a creating a socialist utopia has lead to mass killing and grotesque tyranny that the next try will also do that.
That said I am unwilling to give AOC and her ilk the chance to make an experiment out of us.

Anonymous said...

There is much I do not know, but I know enough to wake up and put my clothes on and not be stupid. Not grossly, anyway.

Anonymous said...

This issue has been around forever. Yet some never learn.

“The whole problem with the world, is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.” Bertrand Russell

I ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. – Mark Twain

J. Burns

Martin said...

Even in small things, I see the same effect. Someone will ask, "what is the best X for activity Y?", unwilling to accept that there may be many acceptable versions of X, but wanting someone in authority to declare 'the best' so that they do not have to choose.

Texan99 said...

In the furor about turning abortion law over to the 50 states, I see huge anxiety over the idea that we're losing a concrete, central rule. Not that the Roe standard was such a great or clear rule of inviolate certainty, but people imagined it was after hearing slogans for decades instead of reading judicial opinions.

A lot of people now are shocked to find that the rule will vary from state to state, and must be chosen and implemented by voters and executives in each state. It clearly makes them anxious to contemplate this interactive and iterative process, whose results can't be clearly expressed most of the time, let alone predicted. Some obviously would rather have no freedom at all than to shoulder the burden of creating this policy from the ground up, locally, community by community, and suffer doubt about the outcome.

We do have a procedure for amending the Constitution either to declare fetuses nonpersons and a pregnant woman's choices inviolate, or to declare fetuses persons and a pregnant woman's choices nearly nil (absent certain death for both mother and child), but hardly anyone shouting in the abortion debate has any idea how that process works, or any stomach for the effort. By design we make amending the Constitution difficult.

Anonymous said...

Climate change: As I keep saying, the Climate has been changing since our planet got an atmosphere.