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The Importance Of Admitting Uncertainty
Say "I don't know," you'll feel better
Editor’s Note: Have a question about deontological moral theory? Ask Immanuel Kant. (He died in 1804, so you’ll need a reputable medium.) Have any other questions? Ask Matt at email@example.com.
Do you think 2022 is the year that the extraterrestrials will finally land and reveal their existence to us? And, do you think they will come to enlighten us or eat us?
The short answer, Chuck? I don’t know. Do extraterrestrials even exist? I don’t know that, either. At this late date in civilization’s increasingly unlikely history, I don’t rule out any possibilities. Because so many things I once thought impossible have actually occurred in the last many years. The host of The Apprentice was elected leader of the free world. Twice, if you believe him. The late Kim Jong-Il scored 11 holes-in-one in his very first round of golf. Professional publicity barnacle Chrissy Teigen actually quit Twitter for good, and stayed off for a full 22 days. (She had no choice but to come back, since, as she put it, “it feels TERRIBLE to silence yourself.”)
One of my last acts at The Weekly Standard, where I worked for a couple decades before the magazine got snuffed, was to write a piece on uncertainty. It was about how so often, we just don’t know what we think we know. (I, for instance, thought the magazine would last well into my geezerhood, and it was offed some nine months later, proving, yet again, that I just didn’t know what I thought I did.) I will quote from that piece now, since Bartlett’s has thus far neglected to:
Journalists, by nature, are insecure, petty, and vain. Their lives have very little constancy, since they are ever-dependent on ever-changing news cycles, which now lasts about as long as lunch. And they are doing so while competing against each other in what could be described as the look-at-me business. Which is not an environment conducive to genuine thoughtfulness, sustained reflection, or admitting uncertainty. It’s more like sticking your bare ass out the shotgun window of a moving car, hoping to attract some attention, any attention, no matter how undignified the spectacle.
And therefore, doing it with a modicum of integrity occasionally requires its practitioners to say the three most dreaded words in the journalism business: “I don’t know.” An admission nobody should be afraid to make. For there’s a lot we don’t know. An infinity of the unknown.
There are, of course, things we hold to be immutable laws of nature: gravity, for instance. And there are general guideposts around which enlightened people can navigate their lives, and over which there should be little-to-no argument: Diet Coke is better than Diet Pepsi, real books are better than e-books, bourbon is better than scotch which is better than vodka, dogs are better than cats, the Stones are better than the Beatles, Rakim is better than Kendrick Lamar, Fitzgerald is better than Hemingway, and Protestants are better than Catholics (only kidding, mackerel snappers—just trying to go viral with my Southern Baptist brethren, at least among the ones who can read.)
But there are also vast unnavigable oceans, and the most honest among us are those who know their own mind well enough to understand their limitations. It is important to be certain about the importance of remaining uncertain. Certainty forecloses all other possibilities. And when you don’t even know what you don’t know, that’s a dangerous place to live.
The only thing I do know is that if aliens exist, they’re taking their sweet time fully revealing themselves. (They’re no Chrissy Teigens.) And if they are coming for us, I doubt it’s to enlighten us. Have you had a good look at us lately? We’re fairly unenlightenable. If the full absolute truth about all humanity were handed to us by The Manager himself on stone tablets, half of us would call it fake news, the other half would sic nerd-boy factcheckers on it and give it four Pinnochios. So the aliens clearly have no choice but to eat us.
Note to any alien subscribers: I suggest spatchcocking me and cooking me over a low-and-slow flame. (You don’t want to overcook me.) But not before marinating me in oil, soy sauce, vinegar, honey, ginger, garlic powder, and minced onion for at least several hours, though preferably overnight. It’s an old family fajita recipe, and it’s tasty as hell. I don’t know much, but that much I know.
As a paid subscriber I expect you to answer this question unless you don’t. For what it’s worth, it’s probably at least as important to you as it is to me. So…as I write, I’m wearing a latex onesie (stay with me), Kevlar pants and jacket, helmet, Thermaprene gloves, ear plugs, range-ready earmuffs, full-face respirator, and three pairs of safety glasses. Yes, I have goggles, but I’m not putting those on till I get out of bed. My question ... Is it possible to be “too safe”?
The short answer, Shirley? I don’t know. Why do you think I would? Because it says “Ask Matt Labash”? Do you believe everything you read?
If I’m picking up on your subtle cues, I think you’re expressing skepticism about COVID safety practices. Here’s my updated COVID policy, since everybody keeps updating their COVID policies. I still wear a mask when I feel like it, mostly in grocery stores and/or around large groups of Trumpsters just to irritate them and/or make me feel morally superior. But my masks all have American flags on them, making them doubt themselves, and keeping them wondering if I’m more of a patriot than they are. These are uncertain times, so it gives me great pleasure to cause those who are most certain of themselves to feel insecure, too.
The rest of the time, I don’t wear a mask. Even at parties. Why? Because I’m a situational hypocrite, like most of us are. Welcome to the Family of Man.
As for the rest of your accessories? I say stick with them. Bikini season is right around the corner, and with all that heavy gear, you’re really gonna sweat off the pounds and be in tip-top shape. Though when I don my mankini, I also make sure to wear a mask as a safety precaution. The pool ladies tend to pant all over me, and the last thing I need during summer funtivities is to be infected with their Chicom virus.
But I could be wrong in my safety calculations. As Socrates supposedly said: “I know only one thing, that I know nothing.” Did he actually say it? How the hell should I know?
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Double Uncertainty Bonus Tracks: A song about not knowing, The Sheepdogs’ “I Don’t Know.”
A song about other people not knowing, Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels”