Uncertainty is Your Friend, Part I

If you think you're right, you're probably wrong.

Posted Feb 11, 2009

A number of years ago the dean of a leading medical school opened the commencement ceremonies with a message to the newly graduated physicians, "Fifty percent of what we taught you is wrong. The trouble is, we don't know which fifty percent."

The uncertainty percentage is much greater in social sciences, due to the enormous number of variables that influence even a barely adequate analysis of complex phenomena. Almost everything I learned in graduate school about emotions is wrong. I can read certain things I wrote just six years ago and be amazed at how wrong they are, given new developments in technology that reveal so much more about how the brain works, along with a more vigorous study of emotion in animals - with whom our most basic emotions have much in common - and more adequate immersion in the sociological and social psychology literature. But the goal of this post isn't to enumerate the many mistakes I and other authors have made about emotions. Rather, I hope to foster a healthy appreciation of the benefits of uncertainty.

Many of the mistakes we make when we experience emotions are due to the illusion of certainty they create. High adrenalin and cortisol emotions, particularly anger, fear, and, to a lesser degree, shame, create the profoundest illusions of certainty, due to their amphetamine effects. Amphetamines create a temporary sense of confidence by increasing metabolic energy production, while narrowing mental focus and eliminating most variables from consideration. That's why you feel more confident after a cup of coffee than before it. It's why feel more confident that you are right and everyone else is wrong when you're angry, that something is dangerous when you're afraid, and that you're failing or defective when you're ashamed.

Certainty itself is really an emotional state, not an intellectual one. To create a feeling of certainty, the brain must filter out far more information than it processes, which, of course, greatly increases its already high error rate during emotional arousal. In other words, the more certain you feel, the more likely you are wrong.

Mental focus, the foundation of feelings of certainty, distorts reality by magnifying and amplifying one or two aspects of it while filtering out everything else. You might discover more detail about the one or two aspects you focus on, but what you discover will have no contextual meaning, because you have isolated those aspects from their dynamic interaction with the rest of the reality in which they exist. In other words, focus magnifies things out of proportion and blows them out of context.

The Science of Uncertainty
Uncertainty is the foundation of science. Scientific "knowledge" is not a collection of facts but a schedule of probabilities, i.e., how likely a series of hypotheses are to be true, based on the likelihood that the series of observations supporting them are true. Science advances by constantly testing its assumptions - all of which have built-in biases - with different observations made with different methods from different vantage points, all of which have built-in reality distortions, because they require focus and relative reference points. Wherever you shine light you create shadows. Scientific inquiry pieces together those observations with the highest probability of minimal distortions, to come up with a composite, dynamic picture of reality that is never complete and bound to change with more observations and hypothesis-testing.

Yet the uncertainty that drives scientific inquiry to constantly test and reject its assumptions and observations does not lead us in circles; despite occasional blind alleys, science - and the technology derived from it - does progress. It's safe to say that we won't return to thinking that the world is flat or that some emotions are caused by demons or evil spirits. We know more now than we did a few years ago, but what we know and the way we know it changes almost daily.

Coping with Uncertainty
How we cope with uncertainty determines how well we do in science and, more important, how well we do in life. Uncertainty, if we can tolerate it, drives us to learn more intellectually and connect to one another emotionally. It can make us smarter and more compassionate, as long as we can tolerate it.

Unfortunately, humans have a great deal of trouble tolerating uncertainty because it provokes anxiety - what you don't know might kill you. Experiments show that more anxious people have lower tolerance of ambiguity and are more likely to generalize and miss nuance of perception, not because they are less intelligent or less sensitive or more prejudice but because they are more anxious - calm the anxiety and they do much better. It is temperamentally harder for them to do what we all must do - use uncertainty as a motivation to learn and connect. Yet, to their enormous credit, most temperamentally anxious people are able to overcome that disability; most learn and connect reasonably well.

All of us, at one time or another, have reacted to uncertainty, not by learning and connecting, but by trying to pretend that it doesn't exist. Instead of seeing it as a friend, we vainly try to defeat it - or cover it up - with dogma, superstition, delusions, drugs, ego, attempts to control the environment and other people, perfectionism, depression, and anger.

And all of us, at one time or another, cope with uncertainty through an implicit recognition that it gives value and meaning to life and that our quest to understand and connect, in the long run, makes us less feel vulnerable. More important, we sometimes grasp that the ever-changing, never-completed picture of reality that uncertainty drives us to piece together is the substance of our lives.

Life can be hard for the certain - reality simply won't cooperate with their view of it. Fortunately, life can also be exciting and more valuable for those who embrace its inherent uncertainty.