Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer
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Certainty and Doubt

 

Bill Frayer 2010Bertrand Russell once observed, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves and wiser people are full of doubts.”

When I first wrote about Donald Trump several months ago, I was fairly certain he would have disappeared from the stage by now.  He was, to me, so monstrously ill-suited to be president that it was unimaginable that he would prevail over much more qualified candidates running for the Republican nomination.  So what happened?

Historians will have their say, eventually, but it seems to me that many who follow politics have simply underestimated his appeal to ordinary voters. 

So what is the appeal of this man?  On some level, I think it is that when he speaks he is not constrained, at all, by any self doubt.  In the critical thinking class I taught for years, I would often joke that the candidate who is a true critical thinker would be unable to defeat a chronic over-simplifier.  Ask the thinker how he or she would solve a problem, and we would be likely to hear a detailed, provisional answer. Unsatisfying. Ask the over-simplifier, and we would get a clear, unequivocal answer. The clear, simple solution will always sound better than the complicated difficult-to-understand answer.   

So this is where we are.  Most of us do not like to spend a lot of time thinking.  It takes a long time; it is difficult to do well; and it is unsatisfying because the outcome is often ambiguous or uncertain. We would prefer to have our thinking done for us and explained in clear language that we can immediately understand. 

This tendency is made worse because we are in such uncertain times.  Radical Islamic terrorists are creating fear and generating almost unprecedented migration, especially into Europe.  The consequences of income inequality are being felt in communities everywhere.  Crime is creeping up again, and it’s become very clear that racial tension is still simmering. Rational, wise voters will realize that these problems have not sprouted up overnight and that there are not any easy solutions.  It is genuinely difficult to know how to begin to think about the issues we face.  But if we start with an appropriate level of doubt, we will be addressing our questions honestly. I see people on both the left and right suffering from a lack of doubt.  I frequently read blog posts and articles which make claims with absolute certainty.  I often think that it must be comforting to know that one has all the answers. 

Wouldn’t we be better off if we stopped being so damned certain of our correctness and practiced a bit more intellectual humility and admitted that complex problems are difficult to solve.  We may not have all the answers.  Our view may be biased and insufficient. 

Donald Trump surely suffers from a lack of doubt, but so do many of us.  We love to sit around and explain to others exactly how they should look at the world.  I find myself un-following friends on Facebook and deleting emails from people who have an agenda and love to pontificate to the world.  I enjoy spending time with people who know they don’t have all the answers.  They like to listen to multiple points of view. They understand that the world is complex and not easily categorized. They are comfortable in their doubt.  We actually listen to each other. I think I learn more from these people.  Wouldn’t we all?

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