Guest blog: Accepting uncertainty as a given is not a defeat, but a necessary step towards progress

By Anne Michiels van Kessenich, PhD candidate, Maastricht University, The Netherlands

As a happy consequences of my ongoing research into ways to educate children about the use of the concepts of risk and uncertainty in their decision-making (Michiels van Kessenich & Geerts, 2017), I met Rebekah Tauritz.  Who then introduced me to your wonderful website. As I was browsing the site, I clicked on the article by Prof. Mertens in the Guardian,

and was thus reminded of one of the many troubles that befall us when we want to discuss the uncertainty that surrounds so many of the wicked problems we face today.

Placed in a conspicuous position above Prof. Mertens’ excellent article about ways in which scientists can inform the climate change debater was an ad inviting me to consider Dubai for my next holidays. Visiting this website again just now, I am enticed by a different but just as visible ad to buy jeans.

In other words, an article devoted to the need to slow down climate change was surrounded by invitations to perform the very behaviours that cause climate change: air-travel and conspicuous consumption. This accurately reflects the reality of the political arena: every political discussion that I join will include people whose views staunchly oppose mine. Consensus is not waiting around the corner.

This illustrates the point that Rebekah mentions in her blog; one which I agree with. Indeed, one of the hitherto underestimated needs in dealing with uncertainty is precisely the ability to tolerate ambiguity in the debate and the divergence of political opinions. People have different outlooks on life and they are often prepared to defend these with vigour. This divergence carries over into the political arena: one generally does not engage in politics to make friends, but rather to promote one’s own ideas about a good society. To promote these ideas is often putting one’s welfare at risk, as Hannah Arendt (2011) wrote. Firstly, because for the good of the community you may have to forgo benefits for yourself or for you own group. As an illustration: by paying taxes I lose money that I might want to spend otherwise. Forgoing this pleasure and giving up this freedom for the wellbeing of others therefore constitutes a loss, and that loss feels negative (see Slovic, 2010).

Secondly, acting on behalf of the political good, and going against prevailing opinions and power structures may literally be life-threatening, as many activists protesting commercial logging in South- America have discovered (see: But, even when the contest is fought with words only, emotions can run high when people defend their positions and a negative atmosphere can result.

In addition to forgoing personal benefits and engaging in dangerous disputes, this call for tolerating ambiguity in a political dialogue may seem rather pointless. For if I favour shutting down commercial air-travel and you don’t, we seem destined for a dead-lock. This seeming deadlock, however, stems from looking at a political decision as a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser. But political decisions are never taken in isolation: we meet in the same arena again and again discussing many different topics. So rather than addressing one topic, we are actually engaged in a permanent dialogue about many political issues. Looking at political decision-making as an ongoing conversation offers a way to re-conceptualise the desired outcome of what constitutes good decision-making.

A good political decision-making process, in which the interests of diverse groups of actors must be taken into consideration, differs considerably from one in which a problem caused by a knowledge–deficit is to be resolved. The latter can be informed by scientific knowledge: we agree on what needs to be done, we just don’t know how to do it. The next step is obvious: invest in research. A truly contested decision however does not pivot around missing or incomplete knowledge, but rather around a profound disagreement over the desired outcome.

In such a situation we need to look for not one, but for two totally different outcomes. The produced decisions are but one of them. In addition to those decisions we also need to strive to maintain a healthy political atmosphere. In such an atmosphere, it is the decision-making process itself that adds an additional layer of meaning and value. This meaning is shaped by the participants. Does the dialogue still offer them enough recognition of their points of view to wish to remain part of the dialogue? Do they feel that although there are instances where their views are not completely taken into account in the decision taken, it is still in their interest to remain included? In this way the most important result of an inclusive political decision-making process may be a sustained belief that the system, although it contains many ambiguities and uncertainties, continues to provide an arena in which everybody included will see some of his interests served.

The system that Prof. Merton alludes to is very much larger than just interacting political and economic institutions, and, in an important sense, now contains us all. Traditionally, institutions like political parties were put in place as ways to reduce uncertainty and address value disparity in decision-making. But in today’s world the acceptance of influence via representation is decreasing. Ever more people are dropping out as party members whilst at the same time becoming single-issue activists. The old, relatively predictable, political landscape in the Netherlands, for instance, is breaking up as increasing numbers of political parties vie for power. These trends cause the total amount of ambiguity and value disparity contained in the political system to increase. This means that the ability to tolerate uncertainty and the negative feelings that can accompany ambiguity becomes extremely important. So important in fact that the lack thereof threatens to tear the political system apart. Political dialogue was, is and will continue to be the difficult search for a harmonious balance between different points of view; it is not intended as a search for the one superior outcome.

Summing up: We need to look at the deliberative process with new eyes. This process should not just aim at producing decisions quickly and efficiently. It is not like winning a race. It should also be inclusive and slow-moving, expressly to enable everybody to participate. People should feel free to join and express their wishes and values, however much these differ from those of others. And the outcome is never just the decision under discussion. The trust that the dialogue will in the long run balance all interests as harmoniously as possible is at least as important a result in an era that is becoming ever more pluriform. To exhibit this kind of trust in the future decision-making dialogue is to take a risk. But if this risk is not taken, the system cannot hold.

Helping children to understand and welcome this diversity of views and the associated ambiguity as essential elements in deciding about common interests is one of the goals of the Dutch risk education initiative now under way.

Educating for an unknown future: putting the jigsaw puzzle together

On November 16th 2018, Marion Brady wrote an article in the Washington Post which paints a powerful picture of the urgent need for a different way of teaching to prepare learners for dealing with wicked problems. Brady gives an example of how something as mundane as buying socks may contribute to global warming, destruction of infrastructure, decline of healthcare and even an increase in mortality. Understanding such complex and uncertain problems, he emphasises, requires the ability to generate new knowledge rather than the ability to simply recall existing, often second-hand, information. He also explains that it is essential that learners learn how to relate information. Instead of focusing on individual pieces of the puzzle learners require an understanding of how all the pieces fit together. Perhaps this may sound obvious, however, formal education often still compartmentalises knowledge even though messy real world problems cannot be compartmentalised. Brady writes: “Preparing to put a jigsaw puzzle together, we study the picture on the lid of the box. It’s the grasp of the big picture—the whole—that helps us make sense of the individual pieces” (Brady, 2018).