Uncertainty As Principle – Article by Steven Beattie

In a recent National Post issue an article b y Steven Beattie (http://arts.nationalpost.com/2014/04/11/shortcuts-boundary-problems-and-how-does-a-single-blade-of-grass-thank-the-sun/) examines how literature and modern physics share a common attribute concerning uncertainty (“essential instability”).


For me one of the most interesting thoughts in this article is:

Schrödinger and Einstein have ensured that even the most stable physical occurrences (so called “special cases”) require a whole slew of simplifying assumptions to make the math work.” I would apply this notion (without the reference to math) to all aspects of our lives. We live in a universe of uncertainty.

Uncertainty means for me that we are faced with the unexpected and unpredicted. That is we are surprised, maybe shocked, perhaps devastated or even worse. Sometimes we can also be surprised with the delightful or windfall. Risk means that we are dealing with that which we have experienced and know a fair amount about. Hence we deal with variances around an expected outcome or event.

The notion that uncertainty lies within the complexities and nuances that our theories, paradigms, biases, notions etc. of what we understand to be likely, sensible or true is the heart of the matter. The suggestion is that we ignore, do not take into account many things when we make reasoned or educated “guesses” on how things work. Imagine what we choose to pass over in our uneducated or unreasoned beliefs.

Uncertainty and instability are scary notions. It suggests chaos is “at the gates”. Psychologically nearly all of us crave certainty and assuredness in our lives. At best, we will think of uncertainty as risk. Risk is comforting as it suggests that it is in some way predictable in that surprises are merely variances around an expectation in our lives.

We create islands of certainty in our lives through various means, the most prevalent is rule setting. Settings where we operate within rules is an environment of certainty. The outcomes of applying our rules always leads to expected outcomes. The outcomes may vary depending upon specific differences in our lives, but these are handled by the answers we give to the formalistic questions that rules provide in processing our needs, requirements (someone else’s needs), and desires.

Rules are wonderful, they simplify our lives immensely. But uncertainty is still “at the gates”. Just because we make simplifying assumptions, doesn’t mean that we have actually changed the underlying environment. At best, the rules allow us to live comfortably predictable lives for long periods of time. At worst, the uncertainty bursts through and makes our rules based setting irrelevant (best case scenario) or disrupted (worse case scenario). Being disrupted means that our lives can no longer be lived the way our rules allowed. Continuing to do so will lead to some diminishment or harm to our lives.

Yet, uncertainty brings an upside. When such events occur, there will likely always be someone(s) somewhere(s) that can and will take profitable (in the broadest sense of the word). Disruption is the foundation for major improvements in our lives. Improvement to our lives in a rules based setting can only be incremental at best. In fact some rule settings are so rigid (settings with the suffix “ism” come to mind) where any potential improvement (a.k.a., change) is likely to be considered heresy. We are well reminded that in rule like settings:

There is no situation so bad where status quo isn’t preferred to any improving alternative!”

So, how do we live while accepting uncertainty? For me, I have stumbled one possible approach:

Accept that what we know and believe is going to be proven wrong or at least inadequate. Be willing and prepared to recognize this sooner rather than later (or not at all). Then create better knowledge and beliefs. This is the scientific mindset, always accepting that we have theories about our universe, not truths.

Easy to say, Yet harder to do. It is far easier for me to observe and comment on  your fallacies as it were. Personally what I believe and hold dear makes sense to me, so why should I put it aside so easily. May be the “inconvenient facts and events” will pass or just be interesting outliers. This, sometimes happens, so even though we are reminded that the universe is actually messier than our views would tell us, we can still gainfully ignore them.

The risk (yes this is about risk not uncertainty) is that if we continually ignore outliers, we are blinding ourselves to shifts in the underlying assumptions we made in setting up our rules oriented systems. We are like the frog in the slowly heated pot of water. In the more catastrophic situations, we know we have to act. It is the nuanced and subtle shifts that we will be self inflicted blind to.

Because rule based are so comforting to us. If we are accepting of uncertainty, we can change the context where the rules apply/don’t apply when we observe meaningful shifts in the underlying assumptions. In physics a good example is the continuing use by many engineers of Newtonian physics when Einstein based physics is much better in so many ways. Newtonian physics is practically good enough in many situations. The key though, is the engineer has to know when to shift to Einstein based physics. This is where the appreciation of assumptions and their limits in terms of application becomes critical.

I think and now more emotionally now believe we can survive and thrive consciously within an environment of uncertainty. In fact I would go further:

I am more likely to survive and opportunistically take advantage of uncertainty in my life than you in yours if you do not emulate my approach.


About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
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