In a 2002 US Pentagon news briefing, then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said:
“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me because, as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know.
“But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult one.”
The state of uncertainty—not knowing and not being able to control—has been a key preoccupation of man for centuries. The downside of human consciousness is the ability to worry about the future. Associated with this worry are feverish efforts to either know more to be able to predict what may happen.
Anxiety arises from life’s uncertainties and is even more present when the line between order and chaos, civility and mayhem, trustworthiness and falsehoods becomes blurred. Certainty can only be achieved if we have absolute knowledge, but that state is an impossibility even though we yearn for it.
Society is increasingly concerned with public risks, such as health epidemics, terrorism and financial crises. The terror attack of 9/11 is a watershed event. Al Qaeda and the shoe bomber have shaped our fears. And the 2008 Wall Street debacle is not easily forgotten.
Not all unknowns (not knowing the end of a thriller) are bad, but some are downright scary (not being sure of your next paycheque). We long for clarity and assurance, but we live in a messy broken world so that desire is a pipe dream.
How we embrace this uncertainty and our incomplete knowledge affects our actions. How we act changes our perception of the world in which we live and therefore the risk.
For example, as a child living in San Fernando, I was always terrified that the refinery at Pointe-a Pierre, whose flare I could see from my home and whose noise could be heard at night, would burst into flames and we would all perish. I never quite understood why there were huge yellow ‘sand-like’ piles on the lawn of the administration building until they disappeared for good.
I then learned that those piles were to be used by the new FedChem fertiliser plant in what is called Pt Lisas today. The flares eventually disappeared and became another revenue stream—gas! My uncle who worked at Tracmac, the service company to these plants, was my guide who explained these mysteries and removed my fears.
In our country, we have different responses to the uncertainties of the Covid-19 disease. The entitled—either through wealth or celebrity—believe that they are exempt from the germ theory of disease, thereby endangering many. Some can elegantly describe the risks but have wrong-headed solutions. Others pursue their best interests even though such freedom leads to ruin for the society.
Appeals to the consciences of such groups to restrain themselves for the common good will not work. You cannot shame them into good. They only pay attention to themselves, their interests and anxieties. They either do not comprehend fully or care about the risks to the national good that their behaviour represents.
Collectively, their actions engender anxiety in us. And in our ‘trust deficit’ society, our anxiety causes us to doubt everyone. There is no ‘Uncle’ in this situation, not even the medical professionals. We find it easy to entertain many conspiracy theories because of low trust levels. We search for ‘truth’ and end up in a partisan crouch.
The Bible describes this situation as ‘no longer listening to sound teaching, looking for teachers, who will tell them what they want to hear’. This lack of trust is destructive to our ability to embrace evidence that can uproot our deep fears and poison our vision of the future.
Risk, as distinct from uncertainty, is about something, usually negative, that will happen in the future. The game of roulette has risks but is not uncertain. The ‘speed’ of the world, enabled by technology and social media, often does not give us a better look at the future as much as it has extended our sense of the present, identifying more clearly the complexities.
It makes us feel that there is no tomorrow. Today’s problems will never allow us to come out alive. We thereby frighten ourselves and stop believing that ‘this too will pass’.
Not believing in a future, our feelings of security and stability become more fluid, causing disruptions in our social and economic life. We fall prey to those who feed us unfounded but high-sounding tales and who always have a ‘score’.
If we cannot predict the future with certainty, and if our human interventions do not always work well, the age-old question remains unanswered: who can add a single hour to his life by worrying? As Alfred E Neuman asks, why worry?
Theodore Roosevelt, in 1933, described fear as ‘nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed effort to convert retreat into advance’. He could be describing our reaction to the Covid-19 disease.
John Maynard Keynes, three years later, in urging action (decision to do something positive) suggested that if ‘animal spirits are dismissed and spontaneous optimism fades, enterprise will die… it is our innate urge to action which makes the world go round, our rational selves choosing… as best as we are able’.
Fear is an emotional state that exaggerates the actual dangers and causes us to run in packs instead of doing what we believe to be best. Despite the clear evidence that our medical professionals have been following all the best practices in managing the situation, we find ourselves second-guessing their management.
We mix up the very obvious electioneering on both sides with the need for hard medical science. Our fears allow us to be detoured into muddy waters with no way out. We replace one risk with another unknown. We destroy community and expertise at precisely the time we need it the most. It is our Brexit.
Growth is positively correlated with a tolerance for uncertainty. Confidence is not merely the fruit of analyses but is the product of the belief that one’s actions will be successful. A successful businessman seeks to avoid ‘paralysis analysis’—a state of unending questions but no decision.
Jesus embraced uncertainty, He had no place to lay his head (Luke 9: 57–58) and the Bhagavad Gita celebrates the warrior who lives a life filled with uncertainty. A major key to a happy, successful life is to embrace uncertainty.
What should we do? Accept that there is a tomorrow. This is not the end. We may live in uncertain times, but we should not live uncertain lives. Recognise that risk is part of our daily lives—what we eat, how we play and work and our attitudes to our bodies and death.
Uncertainty permits the development of new ideas and the correction of past mistakes. Try not to ‘know’ everything. And remove yourself from conspiracy theorists.
Release your ‘animal spirit’. ‘Just do it!’, says Nike.