Uncertainty in the Age of Coronavirus

jon tyson

March 31, 2020

Here’s a thought experiment.

You’re stuck in a room for two months. You have all your basic needs met, and in that room there is one door you may leave from. You learn that if you open the door, there’s a 50/50 chance you’ll end up in another room with two hungry lions who will attack you as soon as you open the door.

You also notice a bee hive in the corner of the room you are currently in. The bees are minding their own business, but it’s a relatively small room, so the fact that there are a handful of bees in the same room with you is making you anxious.

You have to choose, do you stay in the room? Or do you take a chance and walk through the door? You can’t peak through the door, you have to choose to walk through or not.

Most of us would not open the door.

Even if we lowered the odds of meeting the lions to 25%, 10%, or even 5% I imagine most of us would still choose to not open that door. It’s simply not worth the risk.

Yes, being in a room with a swarm of bees is uncomfortable, but when compared with the possibility of being torn apart by lions, it’s clearly the lesser of two evils.

Now let’s consider the current global pandemic happening. I’m writing this on March 31st, 2020 and currently, there are still many people in my country (the United States) who aren’t acting as if this might be a very bad situation for us all if we don’t act quickly and stop this from spreading.

But here’s the most interesting word in that last paragraph… “might”.

I don’t know for sure if this is as horrible a situation as some people are saying it is. I also don’t for sure if it’s as “not a big deal” as some people are saying.

I simply don’t know. We as a global community don’t know — there are so many unanswered questions and while we’re working as hard as we can to get those answers, it will take time to get to a place of certainty.

I’m playing it safe and acting as if this could be catastrophic if we don’t take it seriously. I’m self-quarantining and social distancing not because I know it’s what we need to do, but because I don’t know.

It’s the fact that I’ve made peace with uncertainty that has me act cautiously.

One of the things our current political climate has shown is that we as a culture are extremely uncomfortable with uncertainty. We need to know, and we then need to defend our position like our life depends on it. Just saying “I don’t know” and leaving it at that is increasingly harder and harder to do. Yet, embracing “I don’t know” is one of the truest signs of intelligence. When someone isn’t afraid of saying “I don’t know” it allows us to trust that when they say “I know”, they actually mean it — it’s not just more bullshit they’re making up.

In our current situation with the Coronavirus there will be a lot of people who don’t take the protective measures suggested and their reason will be something to the effect of “well, we don’t actually know” and that’s objectively true. We don’t know. What we know, is that the possibility exists of this being a really terrible outcome for all of us if we don’t do absolutely everything we can to prevent it from spreading quickly.

Casting doubt on the people saying that we should take it more seriously is not a good reason to relax protocols, because unless you can be certain about this not being a serious threat, you’re taking a risk that could have massive consequences for everybody.

In closing, this isn’t just a piece encouraging you to stay home and do what you can to protect everyone, it’s a perspective that will hopefully help you talk to the folks who aren’t doing as much as they can. You don’t have to fight them on their views, you can agree with their premise. Yes, we don’t know. Stay in the uncertainty and invite them into that space, instead of trying to force them to submit to a different certainty. Don’t fight certainty with certainty, it just creates more defensiveness.

At some point, we will have more certainty about this virus, but that will be in hindsight — and at that point, it will be too late to go back and change the way we’re acting now.

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