Managing uncertainty

Posted on January 9, 2011


“Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence.” Borges

Jenny: ” Peter…. Have you ever heard of Borges?”

” Peter: ” I ain’t talkin right now. And neither should you!”

Jenny: “Professor, as I understand it you’re saying that all reasoning is ‘faith-based-reasoning’, its based on unproven or unprovable assumptions and conflicting  evidence,  so in most cases when we’re having an argument it’s not the evidence we should focus on but each other’s assumptions. If you can’t agree on the basic assumptions – eg big govt vs small govt – then in most cases arguing is futile because each person just cherry picks supporting evidence from the conflicting evidence that’s readily available.”

Professor Wiggly: ” That’s the way arguments usually go when you’re dealing with true believers – for example with right wing or left wing bigots. So while its important to identify each other’s assumptions, its also important to determine the strength of those particular bias or assumption.”

Peter: ” Oh yeah, I remember that stuff about how much confidence you have in an assumption or bias. If you have complete confidence  its easy for you to make decisions, but you can’t learn anything. Whereas if you have no confidence you  simply believe the last thing you heard – you follow the leader. If you try to be reasonable and open to different opinions you have trouble making any decisions you’re a procastinator and worry wort. So you’re in trouble no matter what?”

Professor Wiggly: ” There’s no ideal model of decision making when dealing with uncertainty  – when dealng with the future. The model I like is one that supports strong but not complete confidence in an assumption or bias, so has some mental space left to consider alternatives – the person can listen to alternative assumptions and negative evidence, is open to some compromise, but has enough confidence to make timely decisions, even it they turn out to be wrong – which will often be the case. ”

Jenny: ” So even though they make mistakes they’re  not bigots or wimps or procrastinators, and can consider some alternative points of view.”

Peter: ” That sound too good to be true.”

Professor Wiggly: ” I’m  not saying that they’re perfect human beings. I’m saying that they have strong but not rigid assumptions about some important issues – for example about government, or marriage, or child rearing, or the environment, or gun control – and can at least consider alternative viewpoints and so, at times,  are willing and able to compromise. On most other issues they’ll be bigots or wimps – in other words, they’ll be ‘normal'”.


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