The way of inescapable doubt and its virtue

Tag: uncertainty

Embrace the Uncertainty

I’ve long been a fan of Nate Silver’s 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.’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.

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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.

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Uncertainty, Metaphor, and Community

Let us imagine two people are having a conversation about love. The first one says, “Love is tumbling headlong through a field of fragrant wildflowers.”

“No it isn’t, you fool!” shouts the second. “Love is being drunk on the sweetest wine!”

Wildflowers in Vermont

To us, this seems a preposterous situation because there is no need to denounce one metaphor in favor of another. Both can be true simultaneously.

In fact, the only way the above conversation makes sense is if neither speaker realized that they were using metaphors. That is, if each believed themselves to be speaking in literal truths.

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