This Week In Uncertainty: Reaching the Unachievable Ideal

Uncertainty has become a permanent condition in our world.    Indeed, one of the only things we can be certain about, is that everything is now uncertain.  The current and very ongoing pandemic is the #1 piece of evidence for this view, but everything else that previously provided stability in our world is not far behind.  Politics, sports, the state of organized religion, and even the weather are further examples of how uncertain things have become.  Anecdotally, how many times recently have I heard a comment from a trusted friend saying something like, “I just don’t know about the world anymore.  Everything just feels weird.” 

Determining methods for predicting the outcome of events has attracted some of the best minds in history.  One definition of uncertainty I like so far is as “being any departure from the unachievable ideal of complete determinism” [1] which means to me that in a world without uncertainty we would only act on something when we can determine with complete certainty when the outcome is completely predictable.  If however, we have something less than a completely determined outcome available to us, then we are in a state of uncertainty and the course of action isn’t clear.  Recognizing the inevitability of uncertainty has led many fields of knowledge trying to address the unachievable ideal of complete determinism.  Statisticians & Mathematicians have attempted to define uncertainty numerically through measurements and formulas of probability.  Psychologists have defined it through individual factors such as judgment and the conflict created from the competition between our rational and emotional or intuitive brain.  Policymakers try to come up with plans and policies which will either prevent uncertainty from occurring, or provide a full response and direction when it does.  Decision Analysts are analytical, and Philosophers are philosophical and, while acknowledging that uncertainty exists, believe that we either don’t have a systemic enough view of the world or an accurate system of knowledge to follow in determining how to address the problems created by uncertainty.  

For me, uncertainty is certainly an ongoing reality in my life and having this as the focus of my PhD study is intriguing.  My research topic will be about how uncertainty impacts decision making in organizations and will focus on definitions, measures, and types of uncertainty; evidence and evidence-informed decision making within central offices in education; and how groups of people, rather than individuals, can be better equipped to address this “unachievable ideal.”  Each week I will publish my thoughts and musings and what I am learning about how uncertainty can be addressed in this uncertain world and try to bring us a little closer to the certainty we all seek.  Thanks for reading and see you next week in This Week in Uncertainty!

[1] Walker, W. E., Harremoe, P., Rotmans, J., & Janssen, P. (2003). A Conceptual Basis for Uncertainty Management in Model-Based Decision Support. Integrated Assessment, 4(1), 5–17.

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