Embrace the Uncertainty

Mark Schaefer
Oct 26, 2020 · 3 min read

Projecting certainty is a coping mechanism for dealing with the uncertainty that isn’t going anywhere.

I’ve long been a fan of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com and its accompanying podcast, but the title of an episode earlier this week was in perfect sync with the outlook of this blog: Embrace the Uncertainty.

In the context of Silver’s podcast, the title refers to the inherent uncertainty in election polling and the anxiety that such uncertainty produces in people with an interest in the results of the election. Specifically, those supporting Biden in the current contest look at the forecast model—which, as of the date of this writing, predicts that Biden has an 88% chance of winning the election to Trump’s 12%—and wonder whether that means that Biden will, in fact, win the election. Silver, as an accomplished analyst, cannot do what he’s being asked: give a guarantee about the results of the election. All he can do is share the percentages that his model provides: 88% to 12%. “Embrace the uncertainty,” is all he can say.

FiveThirtyEight’s rolling forecast

In reality, it’s all anyone can ever say. As readers and fans of The Certainty of Uncertainty know, uncertainty is unavoidable. There is always a chance, always a risk, no matter how assured we might be in our convictions.

The reality of inescapable uncertainty and doubt is all the more so when it comes to forecasting politics, where you are relying not only on individual preferences but also on the ability to accurately record those individual preferences. Given that, all you can do is play the percentages—as Nate Silver does—and embrace the lingering uncertainty about any prediction, however much we might desire more certainty.

Certainty of Perception

But beyond the desire for certainty in the results, there is another aspect of certainty at large in this electoral cycle. And to get a sense of this, all you have to do is take a look at the social media reactions to the final presidential debate.

Or take this exchange:

Or this:

Look at the language being employed:

  • Trump won the debate, handily. Biden wasn’t a force at all.
  • Definitely helped himself.
  • They didn’t watch the same debate obviously.
  • But what he did on the stage left no doubt.
  • Not even a question.

It is all the language of certainty: at all, definitely, obviously, no doubt, not even a question. None of the usual hedging language—I think, it seems to me, I believe, or Joe Biden’s preferred in my view—is found in these examples. These are bold declarations of certainty as to the result of a presidential debate.

Presidential debates are hardly formal debate settings. They do not involve two opposing sides given a proposition to argue either in the affirmative or the negative, in which points are awarded for rhetorical hits. As a result, there is no real objective measure of whether a presidential debate is “won” or not. The determination of who wins and loses is inherently subjective.

Even the question of what it means to win or lose is subjective. “Joe Biden won this debate just [by] showing up” sets up one level of expectation. Alternatively, Trump being “substantive, on-point, and well-tempered” is a competing measure of success. In the end, the “winner” of the debate is determined by whoever the majority of viewers thinks won the debate.

A Defense Mechanism

Now, one might argue that this kind of projection of certainty is merely standard politicking. Of course you say that your guy won the debate, to do otherwise would be to be advertising a product that you weren’t entirely confident in. And political campaigns are really just glorified ad campaigns.

But perhaps all of this certainty is because of the uncertainty in the forecast models described above. When we are unable to embrace the uncertainty of the world around us, particularly in matters of great personal and public concern, we often retreat into the safe havens of projected certainty. When we feel overwhelmed by the uncertainty, claiming certainty over something—no matter how small or how subjective—gives us a feeling of control.

Perhaps, then, the certainty we’re seeing projected in these tweets and similar statements is less about convincing others than it is about convincing ourselves.

Originally published at https://www.certaintyofuncertainty.com on October 26, 2020.

The Certainty of Uncertainty

Uncertainty and doubt are inescapable—and that’s a good thing

Mark Schaefer

Written by

Retired Methodist pastor, lawyer, language nerd, and Red Sox fan. Upstate NY transplant in DC. Author of “The Certainty of Uncertainty.”

The Certainty of Uncertainty

An exploration of why we crave certainty, whether such certainty is possible (it isn’t), and why embracing uncertainty and doubt make for a more powerful faith and meaningful life.

Mark Schaefer

Written by

Retired Methodist pastor, lawyer, language nerd, and Red Sox fan. Upstate NY transplant in DC. Author of “The Certainty of Uncertainty.”

The Certainty of Uncertainty

An exploration of why we crave certainty, whether such certainty is possible (it isn’t), and why embracing uncertainty and doubt make for a more powerful faith and meaningful life.

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