uncertainty

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In defence of uncertainty

Nick Henderson argues that a counterintuitive dose of uncertainty is not just beneficial, but essential for economic and moral development.

Statistics, social science, and the media

Everybody likes to hear a confident opinion. Take Truman’s wish for a one-armed economist, for example, who would be unable to tell him ‘On the other hand…’. Headlines are often written with a confident certainty. Qualifications and conditions aren’t as convincing. The problem is, it can be difficult to distil even a single scientific study without distorting the complexity of the work.

Unfortunately for scientists (whether social or natural), while people prefer statements delivered with certainty, we are in the business of uncertainty. Our methods are based on scepticism, our conclusions full of caveats. Unlike Truman’s fantasy economist, we do have another hand and are often obsessed with what might be on it.

This is why if someone conducts a study showing one kind of relationship, others will be eager to see if they can find the opposite or no relationship. But this healthy scepticism is sometimes transmitted to the broader public in unhealthy ways.

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