The great uncertainty paradox

Uncertainty is the essence of social, political and economic systems. This is the final post on our series on researching uncertainty

Colin HayUncertainty is troubling, collective uncertainty particularly so.  To find ourselves in a context that can be described as ‘The Great Uncertainty’ is, then, likely to prove greatly troubling – at least to those willing to accept the accuracy of the characterisation implied.  But what exactly does this mean?  What exactly does the claim entail?  When I read again the eponymous blog series that gave rise to the term almost four years ago, particularly in the light of the excellent contributions to this present series, I think that we were perhaps insufficiently clear.  Our aim was to capture, in a sense, something of the Zeitgeist – the mood music of the times.  But there are a variety of credible ways in which the term might do that.   Some are more credible, on reflection, than others; and it is worthwhile, I think, to reflect on them in the light of the present series on uncertainty itself.

Our uncertainty might be ‘great’ in that a large number of credibly significant things might have become uncertain that were previously certain, more certain or at least less uncertain than they are now.  Our uncertainty might be ‘great’ in that a small number of greatly significant things might have become similarly more uncertain.  Our uncertainty might be ‘great’ in that a dawning recognition of the limits of our understanding of things that previously appeared certain might have led us to recalibrate significantly our confidence in that understanding.  And our uncertainty might be ‘great’ in that those approaches on which we relied, and that told us for so long that all was good and fine, have been significantly discredited as their benign expectations have been confounded, one after another, by the uncertainty of the world they sought (and failed) to describe.

The list is, of course, far from exhaustive.  But it is suggestive, I think, of an important distinction – between the claim that the world in which we find ourselves is, in a sense, more uncertain than it has perhaps ever been (let’s call it the ‘greater uncertainty thesis’) and the rather different claim that what has changed is not the world but our understanding of it as uncertain (let’s call that the ‘shattered illusions of certainty thesis’).  As one of the authors of the original concept, it might surprise you that I find much more intuitively plausible the second variant of the great uncertainty thesis.

In essence, the reason for this is very simple.  It comes in two parts: the first counterfactual, the second ontological (that’s perhaps the first time those two words have appeared in the same sentence in a SPERI blog).  The counterfactual is that I find it difficult to imagine that my life and my experience, in so far as either might be thought uncertain, are more profoundly uncertain (rather than just differently uncertain) than had I been born in the Middle Ages.  Nor, perhaps more controversially, do I find the counterfactual any more persuasive (in convincing me of the merits of the greater uncertainty thesis) if I substitute, for my life and my experience, those of someone less thoroughly privileged than I in the previous sentence.

I have no idea how persuasive or otherwise that might be to others.  But it leads me, at least, to a second observation – the ontological point.  It strikes me that when it comes to questions of certainty or uncertainty, especially in social, political and economic systems (the kinds of things that readers of this blog are interested in), the distinction is a categorical one, not one of degree.  Uncertainty, if you like, is not a continuous variable.  Things are not more or less uncertain, in other words.  They are simply certain or uncertain.  And, for social, political and economic systems, that means that they are uncertain.  Uncertainty is, if you like, an ontological property of such systems (or, possibly more accurately, and for the pedants amongst you, a consequence of the ontological properties of such systems).

The implication of this is that all analyses of such systems must acknowledge, assume, expect and anticipate uncertainty – and recalibrate, in the process, their otherwise over-inflated self-confidence.  If that were to happen, the Great Uncertainty might prove a very valuable thing.  It might certainly prepare us better for the world in which we find ourselves.

The antidote to this kind of argument, it has always struck me, is best stated in a wonderful aphorism of the late, great and much lamented historian Eric Hobsbawm.  The line appears, I think, only once in his published writings: a rather obscure essay in an edited collection on post-war reconstruction, as I recall.  But I suspect he used it a great deal in the seminar room, which perhaps gives me the license to misquote it just a little (I may well have got it absolutely right, but in a world of acknowledged uncertainty it would be dangerous to assume that I have!).  The line goes (something) like: “things turned out the way they did, and because they turned out the way they did, they couldn’t have turned out any other way”.

I have always liked this; though I think it is an altogether easier thing for a historian (with hindsight) to say than a political analyst (who typically lacks hindsight).  But it challenges directly the argument I have just made.  For it suggests that uncertainty is just a problem of lack of knowledge.  The outcome, in Hobsbawm’s parable, is certain; it is just our knowledge of it that is lacking (making it appear uncertain to us).  As such, there is no ontological condition of uncertainty in Hobsbawm’s universe (assuming, of course, that the aphorism accurately encapsulates that universe and is not just some piece of seminar room frippery).

The problem, as one can almost hear him adding, is that we are simply never capable of acquiring the knowledge that would be required to know how things will turn out in advance of them turning out the way they were always going to turn out.  That, for him, I suppose is the paradox of (our) uncertainty.  It reminds me of the meteorologist who, when asked for a weather forecast for 2020, responds that the causal sequence that will produce the weather in 2020 does not yet exist and that no prediction is therefore possible.  The weather will be there to be predicted; just not yet!

I have no problem with the meteorologist’s (convenient) retort, but social and political systems are different in kind from natural systems – and the problem of certainty and uncertainty presents itself differently.  By contrast, Hobsbawm, I think is wrong.  His position, perhaps more significantly, is an indulgence that I think a political analyst cannot afford; for it is a profound disavowal of the political.  Politics is made. And at the moment of its making, it is indeterminate.  There are always multiple outcomes possible.  That does not make all outcomes possible (alas) and it does not make the unlikely more likely (alas).  But it means that our future is always uncertain.  That is neither good nor bad, though it is the very condition which allows, and requires, the political to exist at all.

But that we might be just a little more inclined today to acknowledge the uncertainty that always characterises the social world and all that populates it is, I think, a very good thing indeed.

This article is the final post in SPERI’s blog series on researching uncertainty. Read all of the articles in the series so far here.