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Braunholtz: Uncertainty certainly isn’t boring

Alan Braunholtz
Vail Co, Colorado

Opinion columns beg for certainty. “This is right, that is wrong” engages and provokes the reader one way or another. In a changing world of gripping images we have less patience for the complex story behind these stark pictures. Better keep it short and direct, no time for nuanced or wandering points of view.

We crave certainty but the problem is nothing in life is certain. The hand of fate can be painfully unpredictable and when faced with this it’s possible to hesitate to the point of paralysis.

An unquestioning belief in the myths and fairy tales of a religion provides a comforting certainty. We’ve even transposed this desire onto science and our modern rational society. The computer is now a small plastic deity of truth, or we like to think it is.



Science isn’t really about certainty ” it never has been ” instead it’s about pushing our knowledge by questioning what we think we know and in the process tidying up so-called loose ends that will never cease unraveling.

Global warming is a case in point. No model or explanation will ever completely predict what we see. To say when the science is 100 percent certain then we’ll know what to do is to wait paralyzed.



It always strikes me as strange when politicians use any uncertainty as an excuse for doing nothing at all ” “until we are certain.” If nothing is certain do we then believe in nothing and sit frozen hoping that the status quo will last forever?

Haven’t they even looked at the business world, which is constantly investing in a future that no one can know for sure? Yes, they question where they’re going, re-evaluating and correcting with the occasional U-turn even, but the lack of certainty isn’t a case for inaction.

Ironically, Alan Turing, the mathematician who invented the computer, originally used it to show how much we can never know. The chaos theory, non-linear mathematics etc. all tell us that we’ll probably never perfectly predict the stock market, weather, or understand the universe, etc.



Absolute certainty isn’t that attractive anyway. Why bother to think? Morally, if you’re certain what is right and what is wrong why even consider the implications of your actions?

Religious massacres, the Holocaust and other horrors throughout history illustrate the dangers of absolute certainty running amok in the hands of deranged demagogues.

The power of science is in its element of uncertainty. The theories of Newton, Einstein and Darwin aren’t perfect and might never be. They’re beautiful, but not complete, and the best minds in the world are challenged to make them better by questioning and trying to fill in the gaps.

It’s useful to think of the theory of gravity and evolution as similarly imperfect, close to the truth but not quite there yet. There are gaps in both but few look to insert the supernatural into the spaces of our knowledge of how gravity works. There’s a great satire in the Onion about “Intelligent Falling” at http://www.theonion.com/content/node/39512.

There’s a sweet spot between certainty and doubt in many aspects of our lives. Paddling out of a river eddy or lining up for a jump, not totally sure how it’ll all end up, is when we’re at our best. Too much doubt and you never let yourself go. Too much certainty and there’s no challenge to get better.

Same with an opinion really.

Single-minded rants don’t need much reading ” you know where it’s going almost from the headline. That’s why talk radio can be so boring and unilluminating.

It’s the letters or speakers that hover and wander a little as they make their point that keep my attention.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a biweekly column for the Daily. E-mail comments about this story to editor@vaildaily.com.


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