Uncertainty, the worst catastrophe

April 27, 2010 § 5 Comments

It occurred to me while reading this post (agree with him or not, Jim Manzi is an interesting and fair commentator on almost any subject) that modern people seem to have a pervasive tendency to take wild guesses seriously, because copping to ignorance is just unnacceptable. So we see ourselves going to war in Iraq based on a subjective “one percent probability” that Saddam Hussein would give weapons of mass destruction to Osama bin Laden, even though they hated each other and we couldn’t verify that Hussein had any WMD’s. We see draconian regulations proposed to head off a climate disaster that everyone with knowledge of the matter agrees is not expected to happen, but is nevertheless possible in principle. We see economic theories treated by armchair theorists as deterministic models of reality, even though anyone who really had such a model that actually worked could be a billionaire overnight. We see, treated as established fact taught as such to every schoolchild, a century and a half of wild speculations about what conceivably could have caused the world of single-celled creatures to become the world we see today, because the social consequences of admitting ignorance are thought too grave to be tolerable. We see fact-resistant insistence that freely distributing condoms in Africa will stop AIDS, that contraception will reduce “unwanted pregnancies”.

These are just examples which come immediately to mind. Everywhere we see the gravity of consequences driving people to conclusions which they have no reason to believe beyond bare possibility in principle, often in the face of strong contrary indications.

It seems that the thing we human beings hate most, more than just about anything else, is to admit to ourselves that we are ignorant, that we have to trust in God to deal with the things we don’t know: often things of great consequence. No wonder the Tree of Knowledge was Satan’s first choice of temptation for Man: more of a temptation, it seems, than the Tree of Life.

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§ 5 Responses to Uncertainty, the worst catastrophe

  • Ggoose says:

    I think you are correct in this.

    It is why people looked to blame someone when Hurricane Katrina hit. We want to believe we can control everything. The same thing holds with climate change. Things are changing and some of the consequences are not so good. Therefore, we MUST have something to do with it because to not have something to do with it requires accepting the reality that we are not in control.

    It is a pride problem and our society is infected with it. Think about it … the whole CHANGE cry of this current administration appeals to our own pride.

    Could you imagine a politician running on a platform of humility and acceptance?

  • Martin says:

    As a Veterinarian I frequently get the question, “How (why) did my dog get this disease”? My favorite answer is to look the client in the eye and say, “I don't have a clue, and neither does anyone else.”

  • zippy says:

    Love it, Martin.

    I don't trust any professional who is unwilling to tell me “I don't know” when he doesn't know. If trust is really important to me in a particular professional relationship I'll ask questions until I get to the “I don't know”, and see how he handles it. How someone deals with his own ignorance tells you a whole lot about how trustworthy he is in general.

  • […] is part of the modern condition that we hate to admit how little we know, even to ourselves.  Actually it seems to be more than that: there appears to be such a deeply […]

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