The way of inescapable doubt and its virtue

A Plague of Uncertainty

A simple glance at your social media newsfeeds today will tell you that all anyone is thinking about is the novel coronavirus and its associated disease COVID-19.

The reaction you’re probably witnessing on those same feeds ranges from indifference to calm cautiousness to outright buy-up-all-the-toilet-paper panic. On the latter end are people acting like we’re in the opening scenes of The Walking Dead or Contagion. And on the former end are those who seem utterly unconcerned about the coronavirus or its effects. They’ll say things like, “The flu kills way more people a year than this virus has but we don’t close down March Madness for the flu!” Or they’ll point out that the mortality rate is low, at most 3%, which means that most people will suffer the disease with low impact.

But what goes unrecognized in such an analysis is that it’s not the disease that’s frightening; it’s the uncertainty.

Uncertainty and the Coronavirus

We don’t really know what the mortality rate is for the coronavirus because we don’t actually know how many people have it. Further, even were we to know what the mortality rate was, could we be absolutely sure that we wouldn’t be among those it encompassed?

chart depicting wide range of potential mortality rates for coronavirus
The large area indicated for the potential mortality rate of the novel coronavirus is an example of the uncertainty this virus presents

See, the main difference between the novel coronavirus and the flu is not any feature of either virus or disease. The main differences is a lack of familiarity with the novel coronavirus. The flu is familiar. Yes, people die of the flu. But we know that. We factor it in to our regular lives. We decide to get flu shots (or not) based on the odds we think we are facing.

But we don’t know this new virus. We don’t really know what it’s doing. And that creates uncertainty. And uncertainty creates unease. Especially when it revolves around questions of mortality.

The Terror of Mortality

Some psychologists maintain that practically everything we do is a kind of resistance in reaction to our awareness of our mortality. This terror management theory posits that our desire for self-preservation coupled with our awareness of our inevitable deaths leads to a “terror” that can only be mitigated in two ways. First, we mitigate this terror with self-esteem—the belief that each of us is an object of primary value in a meaningful universe. Second, we mitigate our terror by placing a good deal of faith in our cultural worldview. The faith we put in a cultural worldview gives us a feeling of calm in the midst of dread. Our commitment to an understanding of the world around us makes us feel safe and secure in the face of our looming mortality.

However, when those same worldviews are threatened, so too is that feeling of calm. For that reason, we have to defend our worldviews at all cost because they protect us from facing the terror of our mortal lives. Preserving our worldviews is so central to staving off our existential dread that the more we think about death and oblivion, the more invested we become in preserving them.

It seems that one of our preferred methods of defending our worldviews and fending off this core terror is the attempt to establish as many certainties as possible, to know that there is something we can be certain of. In an effort to deny our mortality and the recognition that we are not ultimately in control of our own destinies, we try to control our world and one another and we seek to cling to as many certain truths as we can along the way.

The Certainty of Uncertaintyp. 4

This explains both the toilet-paper hoarders and the people crowding bars and restaurants: each is trying to demonstrate some control over their environment in the midst of uncertainty. Each is trying to say, ultimately, “I’m in control of my life and my destiny, not some random virus!” But then each is prone to making a costly error: in the former, denying others resources by one’s own hoarding; in the second, contributing to the spread of contagion.

Combatting the Uncertainty

In the end, there are really only two ways to combat uncertainty. First, we can acquire more, reliable data, such as that being shared by respected public health officials where such data exists. Second, we can live faithfully with hope. We don’t know whether we as individuals will contract the disease. We don’t know what will happen to us with certainty if we do. But we can live our lives not out of fear of uncertainty, but by acknowledging our uncertainty and living prudently in the meantime, neither panicking nor engaging in reckless behavior.

In the end, it will likely be our fear of uncertainty that will take a greater toll on us than the virus would have on its own. If we do not name that uncertainty and own it, our fear of it will continue to take that toll on us.

The best we can do in the meantime, then, is to acknowledge our unknowing, learn what we can, behave prudently, and take care of one another, even if that care is at a distance. And, of course, wash our hands.


  1. Robert Claus

    As always, very sage advice and insights for the current situation. Thanks, Mark.

  2. Barbara Cambridge

    The application to this virus situation of reasoning from my favorite book of late is helpful. Thanks.

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