This Week in Uncertainty: Heisenberg’s Principle

The probability function contains the objective element of tendency and the subjective element of incomplete knowledge.” W. Heisenberg quoted in Hacking (1975) The emergence of probability. Cambridge University Press.  P. 148.

Walter White as Heisenberg

You may recognize the name of the scientist credited with this quote from recent popular culture fame as the pseudonym adopted by Walter White in Breaking Bad.  Heisenberg was first used as a moniker to protect the identity of “Mr. White” as a mild-mannered chemistry teacher as he began his descent into the dark underworld of cooking and selling meth.  Only later did this identity emerge as an alter-ego for WW as his cruelty, deception and betrayal were revealed as the show progressed and reached its conclusion.  The quote above is from the real scientist, Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), and talks about the two sides of probability as applied to making a decision about the likelihood of an event.  One side of this is being able to understand about the frequency of an event occurring (the objective element) and the other is applying your knowledge and experience about an event (the subjective) when determining what to do with a given decision. 

Heisenberg is also famous for his Uncertainty Principle from quantum physics (Note: I’m not a scientist and not really sure what quantum physics is about 😊).  Heisenberg states that it is “impossible” to measure both the position (location) and momentum (velocity) of an object at the same time, meaning that while you can determine how fast a car is moving, you cannot determine exactly where it is at the time of measurement. In other words, you can have certainty about one thing, but can only have uncertainty about the other.  This principle also applies to other scientific values which can’t be measured at the same time such as energy and time.  

Why are we discussing this scientific principle in this article about uncertainty?  By this point in the pandemic, every educational leader is familiar with the uncertainties which have plagued the world of schools and with recent outbreaks and record numbers of infections being recorded in some locations, it doesn’t look like this uncertainty will be ending anytime soon.  Leaders and followers are going to have to learn to live, cope and combine what they know, with what they don’t know and make decisions under such uncertainty in determining what to do.  The research I will be conducting will be on uncertainty, evidence, and decision making in organizations by central office leaders and my reading on this topic this fall will include articles about cognitive psychology, organization theory, educational administration & leadership, and pragmatic philosophy and intended to answer the central question: “What organizational decision-making processes do senior educational leaders use when making evidence-informed decisions under conditions of uncertainty?” 

In tackling this topic, I will look into sources of evidence used when making decisions under conditions of uncertainty, how other members of the organization and community are involved in making meaning of this evidence, and the organizational and leadership practices used in reaching such decisions.  Figuring out what to do has always been the central challenge for educational leaders and in these times has become even more so in these times as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is lived out daily.  It is my hope that through identifying helpful practices in this study and others that educational leaders will be able to have more certainty about their practice and decisions made in the best interest of the students and teachers they lead. 

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