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The 'ABC'​ of Embracing Uncertainty

Updated: Oct 6, 2020

Our discomfort with uncertainty around Brexit became completely overshadowed by that associated with the current pandemic. The reason for this is largely cognitive. Neuroscientific studies prove that we accept more easily a known future event, even an adverse one, over an unknown one that can turn out either to be positive or adverse. Not surprisingly, therefore, uncertainty takes a lot of effort to process. Here are 3 simple ways we can ease the burden: A - Accept Doubt Full lockdown was just one possible response to COVID, yet it was easier to accept and achieve a consensus on. Our current multiplicity of alternatives is harder to process yet to manage different risk perspectives, we need an interdisciplinary approach. If so, the Catch 22 is that we also need to learn to live with greater dissent and doubt. In fact, it is doubt that has us here in the first place. Every expert will rightly make recommendations that are qualified with an "authoritative doubt". As Aristotle says (to paraphrase), "the more we know, the more we are aware of our own ignorance". There is no one 'right' answer in our current quandary as we're not dealing with determinism, so it perhaps unsurprising that scientists rely on one set of heuristics i.e. a “precautionary principle”, while an interdisciplinary team that includes other experts may disagree. We need to accept this reality and should, in fact, be most concerned when consensus is reached too early or too easily on complex matters. As Mark Twain says - "it is not what we don't know that gets us in trouble, but what we do". B - Be Curious When any of us mature into an occupations, unfortunately, we also intellectually settle into a false sense of security. Even experts can start to view their knowledge domain as fixed. However, we all need to skill-up and catch up. “Biochemistry” was once barely taken seriously as a subject. The scientists who invented vaccines didn't understand how they worked originally - all the more reason for us to control their development carefully now. Yet. we can do this and still produce results safely and relatively quickly. Data science and modelling are now vital tools for both scientists and public health deciders. They achieve objectivity, reduce doubt to what is worth us worrying about and reduce points of dissent by narrowing down to what matters. Let’s not become fatigued by continued volatility but get ahead of it by integrating what we’ve known for many years with new tools that can overcome complexity and our historical limitations. C. Cultivate “Safe Uncertainty” Mason is a cognitive psychologist who described our “comfort zone” as a “Safe Certainty” position. He recommended for change-readiness that we adopt “Safe Uncertainty”. This invites discontinuous change and ad hoc-ness through close inter-connectedness across discipline’s. We need to be clear in our intent to figure out the unknown’s together with as wide a lens as possible. This takes more effort these days with work becoming more remote and pressure on but this is more important than ever to make the right connections, applying both to government stakeholders and organisations alike. Let’s get comfortable with discomfort by creating environments that support safe deliberation. If so, we enable people to venture beyond their own domains, agree integrative solutions and express the doubt that is constructive - both for scientific exploration and embracing uncertainty.

Read more about “Safe Uncertainty” on the Rationale section of this site.


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