The Certainty of Chance

As I was fuming my way along yet another terrible M25 experience this morning, it occurred to me that I would have taken it a lot better had I not had expectations that, since it was half term holidays, the journey would in fact be shorter, not twice as long as normal. If you know that it is going to be bad, you can prepare yourself better. A nice cup of in car coffee, maybe, although the wisdom of that when you are going to be stuck in heavy traffic some time is questionable. Maybe it could affect the choice of CD or playlist for something a little more cheerful, or contemplative.

Either way, today I was not well prepared and so was an irritated bunny by the time I made it into the office. But I am still not sure about whether it was actually being nastily surprised that was the main cause of that irritation rather than the ordeal itself.

The Lovely Wife will tell you that I do not take changes of plan with a lot of grace. Although I feel life is chaotic in a lot of ways I like to know what is going on at any point and, if possible, be prepared for it. Going to a new place involves research up front including printing out maps and knowing my train times; although to be fair the increasing quality of phone applications is starting to reduce (rightfully so) my demands on the planet regarding paper (although I have still not quite gotten used to getting away from a nice sturdy paper ticket when travelling on the Eurostar).

But I like certainty, in the same way I like a nice warm duvet on a cold day. And in the same sense, when I am forced out of the duvet by the need to get on with my life, it can sometimes be unpleasant.

I think, generally, that most of us do, at least for some parts of our lives. But it is not like that. Views on the metaphysical aside, practically very little is certain and I wonder how much of that leads to entirely avoidable dissatisfaction.

Recently I had a good discussion over coffee over climate change. In particular I was being asked if I thought that scientists had actually shown it was happening or not. Now I do not want to warble on about the particular subject, and it could have been any number of other topics from evolution to medical research, because actually I am not so much interested in the subject as much as how we seem to approach it. The question could be pitched several ways. Is it ‘proven’ being probably the simplest and probably least helpful.

I sometimes wonder, you see, if we are too keen on answers and do not spend enough time on the question or why we feel we need certainty in the first place.

A cursory glance at the newspaper will usually be rewarded with some ‘Scientists say…’ story (especially on Thursdays – publication day for New Scientist, the mainstay for lazy mainstream journalism looking for science stories). My heart sinks when I read that.

Which scientists? Has anyone reproduced the results (probably not, at least not yet, time pressure to publish is too short these days)? Are they quoting a peer reviewed paper in a reputable journal (itself not a guarantee of quality in recent years, but better than nothing)? Often not…

Now, I do not think it makes it wrong, either the going public or the reporting (I know that others will disagree on a point of principle and ethics, but ethics is a personal matter. Something for another day, but I digress – again). But it does worry me how we then seize on what may be very early research and instead of being excited about how that should be further investigated we seem to want to go to the end point straight away; which is usually inaccessible anyway. I tend to flinch when someone asks me to prove something outside of the formal use of the term in mathematics. It’s usually not that simple and I usually end up waffling about the ‘weight of evidence at the moment suggests…’

But a lot of the time we want it be simple and clear cut. I think we think it would make our lives easier, but I personally think – like my maps and forward planning – it is child being comforted with a favourite Teddy bear.

Is it safe? Will this work? Are the kind of questions we ask, and we want black and white answers. But people cannot and should not pretend it can give black and white answers (although they frequently do). We can and must advance our knowledge and we have to make the best decisions we can on the evidence available to us at this point but our expectations should be tempered by the experience of history, which is littered with people who at the time thought they were right and were quite clearly wrong. Whether that was because they did not have access to other data or ways of thinking or chose to ignore it I am not sure matters. My point is the tremendous trap of hubris we can all fall into of ‘I’m right.’

I am trying to be happy with uncertainty; it’s not an easy struggle.

I am however reassured by something I read recently (in a peer reviewed journal) that, when talking about the field of philosophy at least, that in 2600 years how few of the big questions in life have come to any kind of consensus1. Personally, providing the debate avoids actual conflict, I would rather have that situation then a world when there is nothing left to talk about.

1Christensen, David (2009) ‘Disagreement as Evidence: The Epistemology of Controversy.’ Philosophy Compass 4/5 pp.756-767