Dealing with Uncertainty

Ethical Perspectives 8 (3):145-155 (2001)
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In C.S. Lewis's science fiction parable Perelandra was a planet which had no solid ground. At all times the floating landscape was continually swirling and moving, chasms would appear where a minute before there had been safe standing. The rational beings who lived there hopped nimbly on to another little island when the one on which they stood disappeared under their feet. They were used to it and took it for granted that nothing was certain. The visitor from our planet had to learn a completely new way of existence. But where did he get his idea of certainty in a fixed environment? It is more plausible that uncertainty is normal and the whole idea of certainty an illusion. Today gives an opportunity to reflect on how people deal with skepticism, doubt and uncertainty.The questions apply to a current debate in the UK on risk. Opinion polls constantly reveal that the public lacks trust in government, and particularly it does not trust the government to reveal the information needed to assess important risks. From which the risk analysts conclude that the government should grant access to information more freely and encourage enquiry. They believe that openness would foster a better understanding on the part of the public which at present does not know what to believe. More information would create certainty, more certainty and the public would trust its spokesmen, unreasonable fears would be calmed. This is the advice of an expert enquiry.Certainty is not a mood, or a feeling, it is an institution: this is my thesis. Certainty is only possible because doubt is blocked institutionally: most individual decisions about risk are taken under pressure from institutions. If we recognize more uncertainty now, it will be because of things that have happened to the institutional underpinning of our beliefs. And that is what we ought to be studying. In my student days the hottest controversies in anthropology were about why `other people' — that is people not living in advanced capitalist society — had certainty about their absurd beliefs.When trying to explain their misfortunes, why did they neglect the physical and scientific evidence, and draw instead on their beliefs in spirits, magic, and taboos? How could they be so obstinate in error? Anthropologists spent their energies on defending the allegedly irrational beliefs of other people, and I shall continue the tradition



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