The Dangers of Certainty

One of the most problematic aspects of discourse in politics today is the certainty people cling to in their positions and their insistence that any evidence to the contrary be absolute.

“The greater part of mankind are naturally apt to be affirmative and dogmatical in their opinions; and while they…have no idea of any counterpoising argument, they throw themselves precipitately into the principles, to which they are inclined; not have they any indulgence for those who entertain opposite sentiments. To hesitate or balance perplexes their understanding, checks their passion, and suspends their action. They are, therefore, impatient to escape from a state, which to them is so uneasy; and they think, that they can never remove themselves far enough from it, by the violence of their affirmations and obstinacy of their belief. But could such dogmatical reasoners become sensible of the strange infirmities of human understanding, even in its most perfect state…such a reflection would naturally inspire them with more modesty and reserve, and diminish their fond opinion of themselves, and their prejudice against antagonists.”

David Hume

This is never more clear than in the discussion over climate change. When those who would deny Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference (DAI) and the acceleration of climate change are presented with the fact that 97% of peer-reviewed studies show clear evidence of human-caused damage to the environment in excess of natural phenomenon, they point to the 3% of studies which refute such causes and claim uncertainty.

The problem lies in the misunderstanding of scientific certainty. In his book, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, Phillip Goff writes,

“Conspiracy theories thrive in an environment in which certainty is expected, because this expectation sets up a demand that can never be met. When one realizes that little if anything is known with certainty, even whether one’s feet exist, one becomes more comfortable with probabilities that fall short of 100 percent. If you start from the idea that there is a core of scientific knowledge that is known with 100 percent certainty, then something accepted by,”only” 97 percent of scientists can seem too uncertain to warrant real commitment. But the skeptical philosopher knows that if she were to wait for certainty, she would never form a meaningful relationship for fear of befriending a philosophical zombie. To properly understand the human situation is to appreciate that less than certainty can be enough to trust, to engage. Indeed, a threshold of much less than certainty is very often enough to demand belief and practical engagement.”

Goff, Philip. Galileo’s Error (p. 152). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The one certainty in the world is there is no certainty. Some theories and concepts are the most likely given the known set of facts. When assessing the risk of either inaction or measures contrary to these assertions, they are never the wisest course to take.

Galileo’s famous experiment on the speed with which objects of different weight fall at the same rate absent other forces (or in a vacuum to be technical) is a case where experiment showed “common sense” to be wrong.

Thus it is with many of the differences in politics and civil (or in some cases, uncivil) discourse today. What may seem likely, or common sense, often flies in the face of the evidence no matter that there is some uncertainty.

I am confident the earth will continue to rotate on its axis and orbit the sun for the remainder of my life, but I cannot be certain it will. The evidence of planetary mechanics demonstrates that orbits decay over time. Someday the Earth will no longer orbit the sun. When, I am not certain but think it likely it will happen someday.

I don’t doubt the evidence and analysis of astrophysicists, even if I may not fully understand it, because it contains an element of uncertainty. Like Occam’s razor, the simplest explanation, absent a preponderance of evidence to the contrary, is often the best choice.

But it is not certain.

Conspiracy theories thrive in an environment in which certainty is expected, because this expectation sets up a demand that can never be met.

Goff, Philip. Galileo’s Error

The fact that many Americans embrace conspiracy theories like QAnon, Black Helicopters, New World Order, the Illuminati, Free Masonry is a symptom of the infection of certainty.

They are certain these things are true because they are not 100% disproven. Bertrand Russell once argued the burden of proof should fall on the one making the assertion. This is because one cannot prove some things wrong. He wrote that if he were to assert that a teapot, too small to be seen by telescopes, orbits the Sun somewhere in space between the Earth and Mars, he could not expect anyone to believe him solely because the assertion could not be proven wrong.

That something is not 100% provable does not render it useless to consider. Nor does the opposite apply; something that cannot be disproven does not make it factual.

People make choices every day that are uncertain. They choose to drive on highways where fatal accidents can happen. They swim in the ocean, where they are no longer the top tier in the food chain. They engage in activities with risk because they evaluate the risk and take action to mitigate it.

When presented with evidence of Dangerous Anthropic Interference approaching 97%, is the wisest course of action to ignore this because of a 3% chance it is wrong?

The only thing an expectation of certainty will do is cause us to do nothing, which will almost certainly cause us irreparable harm.

Are you so certain that you are willing to risk humanity’s future on such an unrealistic expectation?


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