IN PRAISE OF UNCERTAINTY

One day back in the far-off ’80s, a TV news crew approached me in the street. They had a question about some political dust-up in Ottawa, of which I knew nothing until a microphone was planted in my face. I was just another random young dude to them, but I took the question as a challenge. Although completely uninformed, I cooked up an opinion on the spot and spoke confidently without the usual verbal Pollyfilla (“um,” “you know,” and so on).

I caught myself on the news later. I was surprised how convincing I sounded, even though I was talking out of another part of my anatomy. My employer at the time happened to witness this questionable clip, and promoted me from the factory floor to the office.

Cut to the recent past. My partner and I were sitting in a café at Shawnigan Lake, when a TV news crew stumbled through the door and buttonholed patrons about a local act of eco-vandalism at a nearby development project. We calmly explained that we weren’t from the area, and that we didn’t have enough background to offer an informed opinion. Even after we politely refused, the news crew assured us — in so many words — that any response was fine by them.

The inference seemed to be that plenty of people appear on TV without a clue what they’re talking about (as in CBC’s “Talking To Americans” special, in which comic Rick Mercer received eager, affirmative responses from selected pedestrians to questions like, “should President Bush bomb the West Edmonton Mall?”).

We live in a time of instant opinions and ready-made talking points. Rarely do you see a politician, pundit, policy wonk or academic qualify their position or concede a point if it means a loss of mindshare. From the sky box to the bar stool, from the executive suite to the streets, we’re expected to come down on this or that side.

The opinion pages and hotline radio shows are full of bloviating blowhards with definitive answers on everything from global warming to the true meaning of Christmas. Public relation firms counsel big-name clients how to speak with conviction without saying anything of substance. Religious figures have their walled enclaves of belief, and it’s career suicide for them to express any personal doubts about their SkyGod or prophet of choice.

Carefully worded conviction often wins brownie points, as it did with my employer at the time of my TV interview. So there is little space in our culture for people who know what they don’t know and are willing to confess it. You don’t see agnostics going from door to door, asking to share their personal uncertainty about a supreme being

The Romantic era poet John Keats defined “negative capability” as the skill “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” That’s not just some obscure piece of lit-crit wankery. It’s timeless advice for anyone who slags doubt as certitude’s slacker kid brother. Let’s not forget that the three greatest ideas of the twentieth century  – Relativity, The Uncertainty Principle and Godel’s Theorem – all rested on demonstrating the limits of our perspectives.

As anyone knows who watches television talent shows, absolute conviction has been spot-welded to the pop psychology blandishments of the self-esteem industry. Too much doubt can be crippling, of course. No one wants to suffer from self-defeating bouts of Hamlet-like dithering. That’s why I think of certainty as being like arsenic: in small amounts it’s a stimulant, but in large amounts it’s a deadly poison.

This isn’t just about self-doubt, but doubt in general. In a recent talk at SFU Harbour Centre, journalist Andrew Nikiforuk expressed his irritation that he had been uncritically quoting experts all his working life — until his discovery of a spate of meta-analysis suggesting a wide range of professional expertise over the years, from medicine to energy policy, has rested on flawed and fudged studies.

Aristotelian logic is built on the binary option of “A” or “Not A”, with nothing in between. In contrast, the American author and philosopher Robert Anton Wilson insisted the most important word in the English language hails from Aristotle’s excluded middle: “maybe.” At the very least, our cultural gatekeepers should take a cue from fuzzy logic and learn to occasionally say those three little words that men in particular find so hard to say: I don’t know.

The Vancouver Courier, Dec. 12

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