Connecting to Uncertainty

Connecting to Uncertainty

I was taken to task in today’s Internet Evolution blog posting about the future of paid content (Paid Content: Fresh Efforts, More Questions,) and told that all this scenario stuff probably didn’t serve me well as analyst. Quite to the contrary. I think the best analysts are those that admit what they don’t know and actively wrestle with the range of possible outcomes. Picking an outcome when you don’t know is brave and stupid, and does a disservice to the client. Clients, however, want answers. An answer couched in good reasoning is a better answer than one that is declarative. When it comes to the future, little can be declarative, so we might as well admit what we don’t know and think through it in a reasonable way. That is why I use scenarios. I find them the most effective tool for me, and for my clients, to reason about a future filled within uncertainty.

And speaking of uncertainty, the paragraph above wasn’t really the reason for posting today. The November issues of New Scientist prompted this post. I found the word uncertainty used in several contexts, and as editors often do, they didn’t connect the dots, so I thought I would.

First is an article titled: In our own image: Why we treat things like people which states:

People who had just recalled a family holiday, making them feel more socially secure, were more prone to endorse harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding and electric shock than other people. Since uncertainty also seems to trigger anthropomorphism, he predicts that feelings of power and security might also make us see other people as objects rather than human beings. "Both of those psychological factors put people in a mindset where they’re licensed to dehumanise [others]," says Waytz.

In Einstein’s sceptics: Who were the relativity deniers? Milena Wazeck writes:

Compounding all this was the fact that the 1920s was an unsettling decade for Germany. The country was experiencing hyperinflation and political upheavals, as well as radical cultural developments such as Dadaism and expressionism. In a world of uncertainties, some felt science at least should be relied upon to provide firm ground. For Einstein’s opponents, relativity theory was endangering not only science but also culture and society.

So here, people require the need for science to create an objective reality of certainty, when much is uncertain. They don’t want something that once seemed solid, to appear malleable. This aligns well with the comments above, because it is the political, and in fact, life uncertainty in 1920s Germany that caused people to assign this anthropomorphic trait, not just to an object, but to a concept.

And then we have yet another scientific uncertainty in measuring our "tenth planet" (see Former ‘tenth planet’ may be smaller than Pluto)

That number, according to Bruno Sicardy of the Paris Observatory, is hard to pin down exactly because timings derived from the three telescopes’ light curves have some uncertainty.

In this case, the uncertainty is something admitted from within the process. But I must ask, are the political issues with demoting Pluto a motivation for accurately measuring Eris so that Pluto may once again appear more planet-like? This use of uncertainty, though, is more about accurately reporting findings against a process that includes some measurement issues.

And then we have the writer, Harry Collins, taking a strong stand when it comes to uncertainty and the discovery of gravitational waves (see  Gravitational waves: Inside the Equinox Event )

I found researchers laudably aspiring to a standard of perfection that just could not be attained. But the integrity of the enterprise can still provide lessons on how to go about making technological decisions in conditions of uncertainty. It shows that something better than cynical realpolitik can and should always be our goal.

In other words, as I state above, rather than taking a position that you know is probably wrong, engage in the dialog honestly and see what the exploration yields.

And then recognizing uncertainty and overwhelming it with volume on the financial trading floor (see Automated traders eye up unlikely locations).

The uncertainty of price movements means that individual transactions cannot guarantee a profit, but firms can make steady profits by making millions of transactions each day

Traders not only recognize uncertainty, but they actively engage it in order to engineer their trade around and through it.

Not all animals are a suited as humans to reason about the universe or create mechanical arbitrage systems. In the case of the  fat-tailed dunnart (Sminthopsis crassicaudata), they seem to find slowing their metabolism the best reaction to uncertain food supplies (not restricted food supplies, with a certainty of little, but ones where the animal can’t predicate the availability of food.) This demonstrates the need, at a basic level, to adapt to uncertainty and to avoid pretending. If we anthropomorphize: A hopeful dunnart would be a dead dunnart if food didn’t arrive in time to fulfill its hopes.

"It shows that these animals have adapted very well to dealing with uncertainty," says Adam Munn at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia.

And then we have pure gaps in knowledge, as in public opinion about the safety of consuming transgenic salmon (see Will transgenic salmon turn the tide of US public opinion?). People just don’t know, and neither does the scientific community.

The main message from the poll is one of uncertainty, notes reporter Scott Hensley, summarising the results on NPR’s health blog. Asked whether or not genetically engineered foods are safe, just 21.4 per cent answered yes and 14.6 per cent said no – responses dwarfed by the 64.1 per cent who were unsure

This is a great example for scenarios. We have to balance the depletion of free swimming, natural species of fish against the health benefits of fish to a growing world population. We need a dialog about that strategy, that includes potential health risks, and null health risks, perhaps different arrays of risk, and use the emerging science to be as specific as possible. What are the implications? What are the governance issues? What are the regulatory issues? What is the impact on human health with or without the salmon? If we take a clear position that this is neither good nor bad, we don’t deal with the complexity of the issue, and we especially don’t deal with it over extended periods of time. This may well be an issue that has implications for the global ecosystem, and we don’t know that either. It doesn’t really matter what opinions people hold about transgenic salmon, because the people being polled don’t have the facts to hold a valid opinion as to safety (back to realpolitik in that these opinions are being made on moral or emotional grounds, not practical ones), and that is the only thing, in this case, we can be certain about.

We are uncertain about many things. The common thread here is that humans, and other species, react to uncertainty in different ways. We make choices. We do react and we do move forward. Wouldn’t it be good for us to make the best choices possible in light of uncertainty? Or at least understand the possible risks of making one choice over another?

In the parlance of the computer programmer, uncertainty is an overloaded term. It means different things depending on the context-except that it always means one thing: we don’t know. And if we don’t know, aren’t we obligated as the species with the highest level of reason, to reason about possible outcomes – to circumnavigate some, and help shape others. If we falsely believe we know the outcome to something uncertain, we risk being on the wrong side of a trade, in the wrong career at the wrong time, or competing in a market people have ultimately ceased to care about. Uncertainty strikes us at the personal level, at the enterprise level, at the country level and at the global level. The myth of lock-ins and the pining for a return to stability are other aspects of human natures, aspects that lead to supernatural hope. Regardless of religious belief, we can all agree that we think. If we think because a god bestowed reason upon us, or if evolution selected it as a survival mechanism, we should use our brains not drift into the future, but to actively anticipate its affect on us, and the world around us, as best we can.

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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