The GuardianThe Guardian

Embrace the unknown: The benefits of learning to live with uncertainty

By Margaret Heffernan

23 Apr 2023 · 4 min read

The Guardian's Margaret Heffernan examines our complex relationship with the unknown and the impact it has on our decision-making processes and overall well-being.

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We are experiencing now the greatest uncertainty humanity has ever known.” Nine years ago, this statement by Yuval Harari provoked explosive laughter from my teenage daughter. She whispered to me, “what about the blitz? The Black Death? Come on …” I was torn between embarrassment, as heads scowled at a young woman who clearly didn’t know her place, and pride in her critical thinking. That instinctive rejection of Harari’s generational narcissism was valid then and more than justified today: 2014 was a cakewalk compared to 2022.

Uncertainty is a mental state brought on when we know we don’t know something about the future. So it’s different from ignorance because, when we feel uncertain, we have enough information to glean how much more we are missing. We know climate change is real but not in enough detail to decide whether to buy sandbags or move house. Epidemiologists are fully confident there will be future epidemics but not when or what the pathogen will be. There is no shortage of data, there’s too much! And it’s ambiguous, susceptible to a wide range of interpretations. The defining characteristic of uncertainty is that, unlike risk, it is unquantifiable. Probability can’t capture its ambiguity or complexity. What we do know, for certain, is that this leaves us deeply uncomfortable.

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