What Were You Certain About?

The problem with certainty is that nothing is really certain.

Posted Jun 15, 2020

 Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.
Am I sure? Could there be another reason?
Source: Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.

When I was 11, I was certain that kissing caused pregnancy. Boy, did I take a ribbing for that. I used to be certain that butter, salt, red wine, and coffee were bad for me. Now I hear that all of those in moderation may actually be healthy for me to consume.

There’s a problem with certainty ... nothing is really certain.

Most of the people in the world used to be certain that malaria is caused by bad-smelling air from swamps; the sun revolves around the earth; the earth is flat (notwithstanding the current fad); bloodletting or draining the blood out of people improves health; swimming within an hour of eating causes cramps and drowning; bats are blind, and that eating tapeworms will help you lose weight (remarkably there are still a few idiots doing this).

Certainty makes people comfortable, and it gives them a sense of security. It also generates confidence, which sometimes can turn into arrogance.

 Wikimedia Commons
The problem of certainty is nicely illustrated in the parable "Blind Men and the Elephant."
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The problem with certainty is nicely illustrated in the classic parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. Five blind men touch different parts of an elephant then argue among themselves about what an elephant is. The blind man who touched the elephant’s side said, “It is a wall.” The man who touched the tusk said, “It is a spear.” The one who touched the trunk said, “It is a snake.” The man who touched the leg said, “It is a tree.” The one who touched the tail said, “It is a rope.” Each was certain of the whole truth even though his knowledge was limited.

Certainty stifles freedom and creativity. Lately, I’ve heard phrases like “the science is settled," and “a consensus of scientists agree.” But, science isn't about consensus, politics is. Science is about evidence—provable, repeatable evidence. In science, one person can be right and everyone else wrong.

In 1848, Dr. Ignes Semmelweis discovered that handwashing between patients stopped the spread of disease and saved lives. He promoted this concept, but all other doctors believed that bad air caused disease and wouldn't listen to him. Semmelwies continued to promote his idea, so a colleague had him locked up in an insane asylum where he died. Today handwashing is preventing the worldwide spread of disease.

Thankfully, now, we have the Scientific Method: start with a question you are curious about, do some research, make a hypothesis (an educated guess), predict a conclusion, test your hypothesis by conducting experiments, analyze your data, and draw a conclusion. Rinse and repeat. Once you think you’ve proven something, your theory will gain credence when someone else is able to duplicate your experiments. Others may try to disprove it or see if another theory works even better. There is no certainty in science.

This quote from physicist Carlo Rovelli says it best, “The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt. Precisely because we keep questioning everything, especially our own premises, we are always ready to improve our knowledge. Therefore a good scientist is never ‘certain’. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain: because the good scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better elements of evidence, or novel arguments emerge. Therefore certainty is not only something of no use, but is in fact damaging, if we value reliability.”

 Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.
During times of change, people desire certainty.
Source: Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.

During times of political upheaval and violence, people start seeking stability, authority, and certainty.

Religious certainty has led to persecution, massacres, and war. My ancestors were Huguenots, Christian Protestants from southern France. The Huguenots were tortured and burned at the stake by the Catholic Church; it got so bad, nearly a million of them, including my family, fled the country to save their lives.

Political certainty in the 20th century led to an estimated 100 to 200 million deaths.

Journalist Henry L. Mencken once observed, “Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on 'I am not too sure.'"

I recently read L. Neil Smith’s sci-fi short story, A Matter of Certainty. In fact, it inspired me to write this article. It’s about two alien armies battling over a planet in the middle of nowhere. Both armies have exhausted their resources, and the mother planets have sent word that no supplies are coming, and that, in order to survive, they must cease hostilities and colonize their respective sides of the planet. A pair of emissaries arrive, from a third alien culture, who have been hired by both sides to teach the combatants how to stop fighting and save their species. The story is told via a conversation between the ranking officer from one army and one of the envoys, who explains how his species stopped warring when it came to realize, “The real crime is acting on a belief that certainty entitles you to impose your views on others.”

The real problem with certainty is that it doesn’t offer a tolerance to, or a strategy for, dealing with change. Change is constant, and certainty inevitably yields to it. Instead of certainty, we need a healthy skepticism, and the courage to question authority.

Robert Evans Wilson is an innovation/change speaker, author, and consultant.