Action with Uncertainty

Steven Novella wrote a great post over at the SkepticBlog about how skeptics should talk to each other within public forums. He discusses the difficulty of getting skeptics to agree with each other, courtesy within debates and how science’s open self-criticism effects group dynamics.

His blog entry is in direct response to Brian Dunning‘s own post and subsequent discussion concerning public skeptic to skeptic discussions. Dunning seems to think that it is in the best interest of skeptics to present a united front and to only disagree with each other in private. I (along with many other readers) wholeheartedly disagree with this point of view.

At first it seemed as if he might not have meant that. I thought he only meant that we should be courteous when disagreeing with our fellow skeptics (I hesitate to define myself as one, but that is another topic for another post). But looking at his followup comments, he made his point very clear: we should not fight in public.

I can see where he is coming from. The idea of newcomers watching in-fighting makes me initially think that they would be put off and doubtful of any points the group is trying to make. And I would agree with him if debate involved rude or unprofessional comments. That is why I think Novella’s response was so great. He basically said that debate is going to happen, but it can be done in a respectful way that does not damage the point that is trying to be made.

However, that is where Novella ended it, and his post does not completely address Dunning’s point.

Acting like I am willfully ignorant of the possibility that I could be wrong is not how I want to take a stand. Acknowledging self-doubt does not have to be interpreted as a weakness. It will be interpreted that way only if that doubt immobilizes you. The automatic assumption of many is that in order to take action, you must be 100 percent sure about what you are trying to do. This is never the case. Everyone has self-doubt. No one can ever be absolutely sure that the expected outcome of their actions will actually happen. But some put on the facade that they know whatever they say is absolutely right.

For a while, I thought that I would have to put on that facade in order to get things done and convince others that I am correct. I thought this because I was constantly seeing blowhards get their way just because they were unreceptive to criticism. But I believe that I have figured out the real reason these people get their way. It is because they have the tendency to act. People respect results, and people respect those who get results. The unfortunate side effect of being open to criticism is that it tends to cause people to lean towards inaction rather than action. I do not need to focus on how to put on this facade. I need to focus on how to act with uncertainty.

The key is to understand the extent of your uncertainty. Completely ignoring the possibility that you are wrong is just as bad as not acting on something that you have 90% certainty about. Evaluate the arguments as they come in and realistically evaluate their merit compared to the side that you have taken. You may change sides. You may choose to be neutral. You may choose to continue down the same path. As long as you realistically evaluate opposition, you can still act.

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