Video from The Democracy Fund
"TDF's Ethics Scholar, Dr. Julie Ponesse, details our obsession with certainty, where it comes from and what it is costing us." from video introduction
In Defense of Uncertainty (essay) by Dr. Julie Ponesse
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.." In Defense of Uncertainty (essay) by Dr. Julie Ponesse