Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Being a Little Unsure

Originally posted on November 25, 2012

Although I am bold enough to spout off on this blog, let’s be clear that I make no claims to being ultimately right. Often there is a varying degree of uncertainty.

What brought this to mind is that I value a degree of intellectual humility. Not so much as to inhibit self-expression, but not so little that I seem sure of what I’m saying. I invite disagreement and I have no doubt that in some circumstances I may either overstate or understate my case, or perhaps I left out some consideration.

What brings this up as a subject is that a person I know asserts with authority and it bothers me.  It seems as if there should be an optimal balance. There are demagogues, talk show hosts, others who speak with authority. It’s as if they have no doubts about what they affirm. I mention this because as a principle of rhetoric—the art of influencing people—then people rarely comment on this. It slips through their critical faculties. It projects charisma, clarity, certainty. The temptation in the audience is that if the speaker is that passionate and convinced, that’s convincing. Instead, this degree of conviction should be a red flag.

Many people who are more unsure of their grasp on “the answers” tend to be impressed with those who speak with great conviction: It’s as if they unconsciously think, “Whoa. If I’m uncertain, I admit it. They are like me, so their not admitting uncertainty suggests that without doubt they are right on.”

Over the years, though, I’ve discovered that it’s entirely possible to be absolutely sure about things that are absolutely wrong! There are many people whose emotional makeup can deliver conviction and overcome uncertainty. I’m reminded of a saying of a 19th century humorist: “It ain’t what ya don’t know that gits ya into trouble; it’s the stuff you know fer sure what ain’t so!” So I’m passing this along for those who haven’t discovered this yet—indeed, to myself as a young man.

It was hard for me to conceive of this level of hypocrisy or intellectual dishonesty but it turns out they’re for the most part quite sincere: They’ve convinced themselves of the nobility or rightness of their position. That it doesn’t jibe with the facts is irrelevant: They wouldn’t lower themselves to check those facts. This isn’t just in politics—it’s in ordinary families in which some people are unable to consider the idea that they may be mistaken. If it feels so, it must be so. The unconscious obliges with layers of rationalization that can be thrown up with remarkable alacrity.

So the scientific attitude in which one tests out a hypothesis, almost tries to find out if one is mistaken, is not all that common in general society. More common is the simple vulnerability to feelings: If it feels so, it must be so. If I’m uncertain at a certain level, and I get angry, the increased intensity, the indignation, convinces me that I’m right.

(I know, it’s a turn and a twist from the words to the song, “I whistle a happy tune” from the Broadway musical, The King and I.” But the self-reinforcing dynamic is similar!)

In summary, we should challenge and question those who seem unwilling to be challenged, who have no capacity to admit that they might be mistaken. We should not tolerate their bluster.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *