TDF's Ethics Scholar, Dr. Julie Ponesse, details our obsession with certainty, where it comes from and what it is costing us.
I don’t know.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how squeamish does this sentence make you feel?
If the verbiage floating around social media is any indication, 21st century Canadians score pretty high in terms of our intolerance of uncertainty. In fact, we seem to be drunk on certainty, so completely convinced we are right about what’s going on in the Ukraine, why whites can’t help but be racist, why gender is (or is not) fluid, which fats are the healthiest and, of course, the truth about COVID-19. We live fanatically, but possibly unreflectively, by a few simple mantras: "we’re all in this together,” “trust the experts,” “follow the science.”
In our certainty culture, outliers are discouraged, dissenting views are fact-checked into oblivion, and those who question what has been deemed certain are made to run the gauntlet of shame for daring to swim outside of the mainstream.
Rather than acknowledge what we don’t know, we vilify those who try to penetrate the fortress around our well-guarded beliefs and we even fashion legislation — such as bill C-11 that may regulate user-generated online content or the soon to be re-introduced “hate speech” bill C-36, for example — that penalize those who stray too far from what is deemed certain.
When was the last time you heard someone say, “I don’t know,” “I wonder”? When was the last time you were asked a non-rhetorical question?
Is our certainty obsession a new development or have we always been this way? How does certainty serve us? What does uncertainty cost us?
These are the questions that keep me up at night. These are the kinds of questions that got me fired and publicly shamed, and that keep me at the periphery of a narrative trying to barrel ahead without me. But they are also the questions that feel very human to me, that bring me into conversation with the most interesting people, and that, at the end of the day, allow me to live comfortably in the land of uncertainty.
Below are my thoughts on our certainty obsession, where it came from, and what it is costing us.
The certainty epidemic
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing former Global News control room newscast director Anita Krishna. Our conversation was wide-ranging, but we kept circling back to the theme of uncertainty. In the newsroom in the early days of 2020, she started asking questions about COVID. What happened in Wuhan? Why aren’t we exploring treatment options? Was there an increase in stillbirths at North Vancouver’s Lions Gate hospital? She said the only response she ever got — which felt more like a recording than a human response — was to be ignored and shut down. The message was that these questions were simply off the table.
Tara Henley used the same language when she left the CBC last year; she said to work at the CBC in the current climate is “to consent to the idea that a growing list of subjects are off the table, that dialogue itself can be harmful. That the big issues of our time are all already settled.” To work at the CBC, she said, “is to capitulate to certainty, to shut down critical thinking, to stamp out curiosity.”
When did we decide to take questions off the table? And why? Are we really so certain that we have all the answers and that the answers we have are the right ones? If asking questions is bad because it rocks the boat, what is the particular boat we are rocking?
It is odd to me that it would be the big, complex issues about which we seem to feel most certain.
If we’re entitled to feel certain about anything, wouldn’t you expect it to be the little things in life? The coffee mug is where we left it, the gas bill arrives on the 15th. Instead, we seem to reserve certainty for the things we should be least certain about: climate change, COVID policy, the effectiveness of gun control, what it means to be a person, the real causes of inflation. These issues are multi-factorial (involving economics, psychology and epidemiology), and mediated by an unquestioning media and public officials who hardly warrant our trust. As our world expands and grows increasingly complex — photos from NASA’s Webb telescope are showing us new images of galaxies millions of miles away — this is the time we pick to be certain?
Where did our certainty obsession come from?
The insatiable desire to know the unknowable is hardly new. Fear of the unknown, of unpredictable others has likely always been with us, whether due to the uncertainties we face now, those of the Cold War era, or the fears of prehistoric man struggling for survival.
As far as we can tell, story developed as a way to make sense of the unknown: our existence and death, how the world was created, and natural phenomena. The ancient Greeks imagined Poseidon striking his trident on the ground to explain earthquakes, and the Hindus envisioned our world as a hemispherical earth supported by elephants standing on the back of a large turtle.
Forming beliefs about what underlies what we can see helps us to bring some order to the world, and an ordered world is a safe world (or so we think).
Religion is one way to do this. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly on fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes.”
Science, often prescribed as an antidote to religion, is another way of managing our fears. The ancient Greeks were obsessed with the idea that technology (“technê”) could offer some control over the chaos of the natural world. The chorus in Sophocles’ Antigone sings: “Master of cunning he: the savage bull, and the hart, who roams the mountain free, are tamed by his infinite art;” (Ant. 1). And in Prometheus Bound, we are told that navigation tames seas (467-8) and writing allows men to “hold all in memory” (460-61). Carpentry, warfare, medicine, navigation, even literature, were all attempts to gain a little control over our vast and complicated world.
Our certainty obsession piqued with the rise of radical skepticism during the Enlightenment. The most famous doubter of them all, René Descartes, sought to “tear everything down completely and begin again” to find the certain principles with which to build a new system of knowledge. Even for the empiricist David Hume, who trusted the senses more than most, certainty is a fool’s errand since “all knowledge degenerates into probability” (Treatise, 220.127.116.11).
More recently, we seem to have undergone a shift in Canadian values with respect to certainty. The authors of Searching for Certainty: Inside the New Canadian Mindset write that the experience of rapid change during the 1990s — economic uncertainty, constitutional battles, the emergence of new interest groups — made us more self-reliant and more questioning of authority. We became more discerning, more demanding, and less willing to place our trust in any institution — public or private — that had not earned it. We were reassured not by promises, but by performance and transparency. We went through what Neil Nevitte called a ”decline of deference.”
Writing these words gives me chills. Who were these Canadians and what happened to them? Why has deference risen once again?
If the 90s search for certainty was coupled by a trend away from deference, the certainty search of the 21st century seems to depend on it. We are certain because we outsource our thinking to the experts, because we believe that government is fundamentally good, that the media would never lie to us, that pharmaceutical companies are first and foremost philanthropic.
But, why are we drawn to certainty in the first place? Does our certainty obsession come from science, itself? I wonder. We are told “The science is settled” — is it? “Trust the science” — can we? “Follow the science” — should we?
It isn’t even clear to me what we mean by “science” in these oft-repeated mantras. Is the science we are supposed to trust the institution, itself, or particular scientists who have been anointed credible representatives of it? Dr. Fauci conflated the two in November 2021 when he tried to defend himself against critics: “they’re really criticizing science because I represent the science.” I’m not so sure.
Science, itself, is an unlikely scapegoat for our certainty obsession since science teaches us that certainty should be the exception, not the rule.
One of the basic principles of the scientific method, famously articulated by Karl Popper, is that any hypothesis must be inherently falsifiable, potentially disprovable. Some scientific principles capture the notion of uncertainty explicitly, such as Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” to capture the idea of fundamental limits to accuracy in quantum mechanics. And 2,000 years before Heisenberg, Aristotle wrote that “it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.”
Carl Sagan echoed this idea: “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.” Uncertainty and humility, not conviction and arrogance, are the scientist’s true virtues.
Science always stands at the brink of what is known; we learn from our mistakes, we resist incuriosity, we feel forward for what is possible. Certainty and arrogance handicap us in science and in life. And yet the toxic idea persists that the mark of an intelligent person, and probably a mature society, is a demonstrated commitment to certainty.
If science isn’t to blame, where does our obsession with certainty and conviction come from? I can’t help but wonder if it comes down to the fact that different people think differently about the world.
As the proverb attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus goes: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Isaiah Berlin (in his essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox”) elaborates, dividing people into two types of thinkers: there are hedgehogs, who see the world through the lens of a “single central vision,” and foxes, who pursue many different ideas, seizing upon a variety of experiences and explanations simultaneously. Foxes have different strategies for different problems; they are comfortable with diversity, nuance, contradictions, and the grey areas of life. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, explain away inconvenient details as they reduce all phenomena to a single organizing principle. Plato, Dante, and Nietzsche are hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, and Molière are foxes.
Have we become a society of hedgehogs? Is the approach of the hedgehog the only reasonable defence against the chaos of our world? Are there any foxes left and, if so, how did they survive? How will they survive?
Swerving to avoid doubt: the costs of certainty
If we cling so tightly to certainty, we must do so for a reason. Perhaps we don’t feel like we have the luxury of ambivalence. Perhaps we fear that giving up the appearance of certainty will expose us to those who will pounce at the first sign of weakness.
Or are we just trying to avoid a more personal state of discomfort? In The Art of Scientific Investigation, William Beveridge writes, “Many people will not tolerate a state of doubt, either because they will not endure the mental discomfort of it or because they regard it as evidence of inferiority.” Is certainty just a way to find some comfort in a world eerily shifting around us?
Possibly. But there are costs to this way of living too, costs that aren’t as obvious as we might think:
- Arrogance: The ancient Greeks called it hubris — insolence or wanton arrogance — and crafted tragedies to warn us of its consequences. We all know what happened to Oedipus when his incautious convictions propelled him towards his fateful end. Arrogance is a short walk from certainty.
- Inattention: As soon as we become certain about a belief, we tend to be inattentive to the details that confirm or deny it. We become disinterested in accountability and potentially even deaf to suffering. Trish Wood, who moderated the recent Citizens’ Hearing on Canada's COVID-19 response, emphasizes the damage done by experts in public health: “their blinkered approach was inhumane.” She says the testimonies of the vaccine injured were harrowing but predictable. No one was held accountable. All of our institutions, including the media who should be watchdogging them, “have been captured and are complicit.”
- Reductionism: When we pursue a single narrative, as the hedgehog does, we ignore what doesn’t neatly fit the narrative. This happens anytime people are reduced to numbers (as they were at Auschwitz), or to their skin colour (as they were in the antebellum South), or to their vaccination status (as we all are now). Dehumanization and ignoring complex features of person go hand in hand (though which comes first isn’t always clear).
- Intellectual atrophy: As soon as we become certain, we no longer need to hunt for answers, think of the right questions to ask, figure out how to work our way out of a problem. We should be unrelenting in our attempt to uncover the origin of COVID-19. But instead, we suppress unwelcome facts and are happy to trade incuriosity for ineptitude. “[T]ruth will come to light,” Shakespeare wrote. Well, not if the people don’t crave it, have no idea how to search for it.
- Dampening of our spirit: This is the cost of certainty that I worry about most. The most interesting people I chat with these days are talking about meaning. We are a society, they say, without meaning, without a sense of who we are or what we are doing. We have lost our spirit. With all his advantages, the hedgehog is missing one big thing: he has no wonder in his life. He has trained himself away from it. And without wonder, without a healthy dose of “I don’t know,” what does life feel like? Where does that leave our spirit? How optimistic or excited or invigorated are we able to be?
I don’t know how we find meaning and a sense of identity again once they have been lost, but I do know that identifying them as the real source of our certainty obsession is the first step in curing ourselves of it.
Live the questions
The moment we capitulate to certainty is the moment we stop questioning. In a 1903 letter to his protégé, Rainer Rilke wrote:
I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.
Our culture craves instant gratification, simple answers, and obvious (and, ideally, easy) pathways to success. Too many of us have become hedgehogs and that has cost us a lot over the last two years — best practices in medicine and research, transparency and accountability in government, civility in discourse and relationships — but perhaps nothing more than the loss of our own curiosity and humility.
I don’t know.
In these three words, we embrace one of humanity’s greatest fears. As the poet Wislawa Szymborska said in her Nobel acceptance speech, “It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings.” In our world, certainty is hoarded as the stepping stone for status and achievement. Our world is bedevilled, as Rebecca Solnit wrote, by “a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate.”
We think uncertainty will expose us, put us into a distressing free-fall, but in reality it does the opposite. It expands our minds by creating spaces that don’t need to be filled by anything. It lays the groundwork for innovation and progress, and opens us up to meaningful connection with others.
What if we shelved certainty for a while? What if we stopped working so hard to build fortresses around our beliefs and, instead, got comfortable “living the questions”?
I urge you to try it. Surrender yourself to uncertainty. Embrace astonishment and wonder. To quote Szymborska again, “The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista.”
I don’t know, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s unavoidable, it’s eminently scientific, and it’s deeply human.