Going Uncertain: Casting doubt on inconvenient possibilties

Going Uncertain: Casting doubt on inconvenient possibilties

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“Yeah, but relax, you don’t know that for sure.”

For the most part, people hate uncertainty. It’s mentally taxing. It distracts us from our focused pursuits. It reduces our confidence. It vaporizes our mojo.

Still, we do welcome one kind of uncertainty–uncertainty that frees us from a larger uncertainty. If current projections about global warming are accurate, we are in for a very uncertain future. Arguments that cast doubt on current projections therefore come as welcome news.

Spin doctors know this. They don’t “go negative” on Al Gore, they “go uncertain”: declaring his evidence to be inconclusive and suggesting that he has ulterior motives. They do so with an air of scientific skepticism, as though the current global warming projections were some kind of wishful thinking that must be debunked by more sober mature minds, rather than the other way around.

Doubt is inconvenient, except when it frees us from greater inconveniences. The greatest inconvenience of all is this: since the future has yet to occur, all projections about it are guesses made in the face of some uncertainty. When placing bets on the future, especially very large bets, this uncertainty is extremely inconvenient. Many of us therefore pretend that sure things exist, and that it’s worth holding out for them.

But ask any competent CEO or world leader. It’s not as though when you’re moving a billion dollars or a hundred thousand people, the universe (out of regard for your burden of responsibility) affords you sure things. Certainty doesn’t scale up in proportion to the size of your bet. It’s betting all the way up.

Our unwillingness to face the inconvenient truth that all decisions are uncertain makes us especially vulnerable to spin doctors when they “go uncertain.” If you’re stuck on the horns of a dilemma, and you’re holding out for certainty, then all you need is the tiniest shred of evidence to doubt one of your two options, and you’ll embrace the other one as a sure thing by default—especially if that’s the one that requires less immediate effort.

To name it is to tame it. Spot your own yearning for sure things, and you’ll automatically make better decisions and feel better about the decisions you make.