Certainty of uncertainty

It’s interesting to look back at things I was learning in my MBA and consider its relevance to the world in which I work. There is some form of dissonance that I do not entirely understand, yet I am experiencing, observing, and increasingly cannot deny. The MBA education is – perhaps like much of our education – is based on ideas that have the notions of causality built into them. Perhaps because showing causality gives us certainty. We like certainty. We like to talk about things we are certain about.

The challenge with that, it seems, is that we filter in positives. This is built into our research methodologies (as we typically study what can be studied) and what gets published: the vast majority of papers are based on positive results. How many more are out there that were negative and were not published? And probably even much more that we did not even want to study because we thought the results could be negative. We filter out uncertainty and even certainties of the negative. So it appears that what we call knowledge is more or less selectively biased.

Reaching a point of certainty confirms that not only we worked out something (and therefore can pat ourselves on the shoulder), but maybe more importantly it gives us confidence to talk about it. In other words we can claim to know what works and/or how it works. But what about things we do not know? What about things with no obvious causal effects? Or where causality is determined by context and permutations of different factors that could not be captured by our methodologies.

Before the germ theory came about we had explanations based on what we thought we knew about the world and developed elaborate ideas that neglected what we did not know. At the time the methodologies and tools were not in a position to capture that part of nature that was so pervasive with (what we now know) clear causative effects.

With years I am accumulating experience and awareness that could be better summarised as ‘certainty of uncertainty’. Understandably it’s hard to talk or teach about uncertainty. In part it seems it is neglected, in part it seems to be almost a taboo. A professor who stands up in front of the students to say he does not know something is unlikely to be very popular with that crowd, even if the course was titled ‘Uncertainty in Business’ (I suspect one would gravitate towards certainty anyway just as I might be doing it now).

Yet more often than not we are uncertain about things even if we think we are. Can we be certain about what career is good for us, the weather in 7 days, exchange rate, how kids will turn out, investment decisions, that cure for cancers will be discovered etc etc? But it also seems that we reward those who can speak certainty into our lives – whether it is fortunetellers, economists (same as fortunetellers), pundits (same as economists), the Chairman of the Fed (typically economists), Ivy League professors (many resemble economists), recipe books writers (often carry the gravitas of Ivy League professors albeit with less academic rigour, but adopt econometric approaches nonetheless) or others – and punish or ignore those who say ‘I do not know.’ Selective bias again… but then again that seems to be the human nature.

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