5 MIN READ | Commentaries

We are Hooked on Evidence and an Illusion of Certainty (Part 1)

Andrew West

Cite This
Andrew West, (2016, November 2). We are Hooked on Evidence and an Illusion of Certainty (Part 1). Psychreg on Commentaries. https://www.psychreg.org/hooked-evidence-illusion-certainty-part-1/
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Before we start, you deserve a warning. I shall not be referring to the published results of any empirical study to defend what I am about to say. Nor shall I be “playing Simon Says”. Everything I say is based on evidence, but you may find that my notion of evidence differs from your own. That is, after all, the purpose of communication – to bridge a difference. Hopefully you will read on and be in a position to judge further.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Absolute certainty is a myth, and even relative uncertainty is expected more frequently, and in a wider range of situations, than is either useful or justified.[/perfectpullquote]

Certainty has always bothered me, not least because it narrows the range of possibilities. Possibility is, in my view, the chief thing that draws us forwards in life. A probability of less than 1 per cent can be enough to kindle hope. In my area of work – child and adolescent mental health – I have come to regard the position of uncertainty as both more secure and more fertile than certainty. The paradox inherent in this position is not lost on me. If there is one thing I am certain of, it is the importance and inevitability of uncertainty.

It is certainty, though, that is constantly demanded of us. In its most reductive form the demand is for dichotomous clarity with stability across time – in other words, categorical inflexibility. I suspect that each of us would prefer a solid base on which to indulge our own flexibility; I want certainty from you, and freedom for me. Accepting the right of another person to their own flexibility, thereby creating uncertainty for me, is an ideological choice.

But, in expecting of our environment and circumstances categorical and inflexible certainty, we appear to be forgetting what we were taught by quantum physics and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It is simply the case that most things we cannot know for certain and if we impose certainty on them, through the exercise of power, we alter them. News anchors are becoming tedious in their demand for answers along black-or-white lines. I wonder if some of the anger levelled against experts around the time of the UK European Union referendum might have been because genuine experts so often complicate matters, rather than simplify them.

Granted, a degree of certainty is needed at times, but a degree of certainty is all we can reliably get. Absolute certainty is a myth, and even relative uncertainty is expected more frequently, and in a wider range of situations, than is either useful or justified.

This demand for certainty is evidence of a regression on our part. We might expect an adult to accept that “I shall get back in time for dinner” means “I will do my best, given the vicissitudes of weather, traffic conditions, and the possibility of my own demise, to get back in time for dinner”, but it would be an idiotic or sadistic parent who gave this as an answer to their anxious child’s questioning. Children need and deserve actual uncertainty to be dressed up for them and presented as certainty. Adults should not but often do. Religious faith is frequently depicted as infantile by those of different persuasions, but it could be argued that it is actuality a quality of maturity that is demonstrated by the ability to accept that things will work out, “god willing” – in other words, “maybe”.

So, in an insecure world, we regress and long for certainty. The powerful and the angry demand it of others; the anxious ask for it or seek it.

If religious faith has fallen out of fashion, so has the notion of authority. In His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman renames god “The authority”. We have, as Robert Bly put it, become a “Sibling Society”. We no longer accept authority at face value. We scrutinise it. So we should. Authorities draw on the evidence at their disposal to make their own judgements. Judgement, though, is an expression of power and in this society of siblings we demand to see the working. In our search for certainty it is evidence, and not authority, that has become the thing that we turn to.

To use a legal analogy, our emotional grasp of evidence and the standard of proof constantly slips from the “balance of probabilities” employed in the civil court to the criminal law concept of “beyond all possible doubt”.

The legal analogy is itself telling. In the process of scrutinising the evidence submitted to the court we accept the fiction that it is “the truth, whole truth and nothing but truth”, forgetting that it was initially mostly subjective in its nature, rendered quasi-objective through the process of the swearing an oath. We use a deity – or an ethical ideal – to endorse a promise which, in turn, alchemically renders subjective observations – human and frail –  into the gold nuggets of “fact”.

Science does something rather similar in its use of figures and statistics. It creates a ritualistic and arcane process that renders the ambiguity and complexity of life into categorical and numerical outputs. The whole point of the Chi Squared test and much of the rest of statistics, it seems to me, is to transform the scalar, the changeable, and the probabilistic, to the apparently fixed and categorical. I say “apparently” because the output invariably remains probabilistic, the most frequent conclusion is that “more research is needed”, and replication turns out to be more problematic than we at first hoped.

Humans, of course, are immensely sophisticated processing machines and are capable, in a split second, of computing multiple data and subtle probabilities to produce, if necessary, a dichotomous output. But we tend to dismiss this, calling it “subjective”. Instead we take a tiny proportion of the visible data and put it through a vastly inferior computation to produce an output that, paradoxically, we trust more –  not because it is better, but because it is simpler, and because we believe that we have controlled the steps of the process.

We symbolise the real contingencies of life using words and numbers which are amenable to manipulation. By owning and controlling the manipulation of these symbols we believe that we have control over the contingencies themselves.

Granted, to some extent, we have. There is no doubt that we have gained control over aspects of the physical environment. But the system in which we live is so vastly complex that we have no control over the ramifications of the power we have exerted and, ultimately, we have not reduced the level of uncertainty in which we live at all.

Editor’s note: You can read the second part here.

Andrew West is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist in the National Health Service. That is true at the point of writing, and has been for fifteen years, but will not be true forever. Never a very comfortable “joiner” he wandered through violin-making (he still plays his own violin), teaching English in France, cycle-touring, and farm labour in Scotland, before starting a Law degree in Cambridge. You can follow him on Twitter @afwesty  



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