“Armies of Certitude”

“Armies of certitude.” That is how columnist David Brooks describes what we will face when the Supreme Court’s makes its decision about abortion rights. (“Abortion: The Voice of the Ambivalent Majority,” New York Times, Dec. 2, 2021) Certainty. What is it? Is it a good guide to being right? Unfortunately, certainty is no indication we are right.

I remember the feeling. I was struggling to figure out how to structure my dissertation research so I could answer the questions I had. Late one afternoon in the library, it came to me. I was excited to have finally solved the problem. It was clear. I wrote down a sketch of how it would work so I could fill it in the next day.

Certainty. As you might have guessed, the next morning I discovered that the idea I had been so certain about wouldn’t work at all. I was befuddled as to why it felt like an “ah hah!”

One would hope that the feeling of certainty would be strongly correlated with being right. Right? Imagine my disappointment years later when I reviewed the research on certainty and found that it has no relationship with being right. Certainty cannot be trusted. Certainty is just a feeling. It is not a sign of being right. Drat!

Not enough people seem to realize that. In a time of vehement polarization over so many things, the problem is not that people disagree. The problem is that too many people feel highly certain they are right. Their minds are closed. Dialogue is not possible. New information is twisted to support their beliefs. People who think differently are idiots, sheep, paranoid, or whatever dismissive term works. Then we are simply engaged in a destructive power struggle.

The one thing I have found that can soften things up is a four-step process, when that is possible. Let’s take abortion as an example.

Step 1: What are your thoughts about abortion?

“Abortion is wrong.”

Step 2: Why do you think that?

“Because it is murder.”

Step 3: How strongly do you feel about that?

“Very Strongly.”

Step 4: Why do you feel so strongly?

“I was an only child. I always wanted a brother or sister. When I was older, I asked my mother about it, and she told me that she didn’t want another child but had an unwelcome pregnancy and had an abortion. She was so matter of fact about it. It really hurt.”

The last ‘why?’ is a different one from the first ‘why?’. It is not a reason; it is the personal experiences that shape the position. Reasons are impersonal. The last ‘why?’ can be highly personal and highly charged. It feels like if you don’t care about those experiences, then you don’t care about me. You only care to have your way prevail.

When people feel compassionately heard about the personal and emotional parts of their position, they relax. Then, they may be open to hearing that depth in another person’s position.

Certainty is no indication we are right. Get the word out. Certainty cannot be trusted, and should not be respected.