08/20/2010 06:18 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Curse of Certainty

Most Americans think the country is on the wrong track. It ought to be comforting, then, that so many are also absolutely certain they know what to do about it. With determination, data and no lack of emotion, they have the solution for health care, the deficit, illegal immigration, same-sex marriage, abortion, gun control, taxes, climate change, and the recession. If we don't agree, it's because at best we're misguided and at worst we're -- take your pick -- flaming liberals, right-wing conservatives, or irresponsible libertarians.

Yet we are not comforted by the certainty of our fellow Americans because they don't share our certainty. With self-righteousness, we see these ill-informed, pig-headed people as the toddler who is "always wrong but never in doubt." We are as certain they have it wrong as we are that we have it right.

In this context, consider a few findings from classic social science research:

• Handicappers given five pieces of data about the horses in a race picked the winner 15 percent of the time. Given forty pieces of data on each horse, their success rate was exactly the same, even though the extra data made them considerably more confident that they were right.
• Managers given a ten-question test (e.g. what is the length of the Nile River?) were asked to provide a low and a high guess such that they were 90 percent sure that the correct answer fell between the two guesses. They were wrong 99 percent of the time when they thought they would be wrong just 10 percent of the time.
• ROTC candidates given data on actual breakdowns concerning the security of nuclear weapons were 84 percent more confident in the security of our nuclear arsenal. Peace activists given exactly the same information were 100 less confident.
• Students from Dartmouth and Princeton who attended or saw movies of a football game with a massive number of penalties on both teams were asked who started the rough play. More than 80 percent of Princeton students said Dartmouth started it. Fewer than 40 percent of Dartmouth students agreed.

What does this show? It's not that we are bad or stupid. We are just people, subject to the errors of perception and judgment that we come with the species. What we need is less effort in pronouncing the other side wrong and more in questioning whether we are right. We need a dose of humility to calm the curse of certainty.

Some of us were certain in 2001 that major tax cuts were easily affordable in an expanding economy. Some of us were certain that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Some of us are certain now that the stimulus package saved the economy, just as others are certain it has destroyed our future. What makes us so certain? Perhaps it is the fear that we have been losing what matters to us in recent years and stand to lose more -- so we need something to cling onto. Perhaps it is our inability to deal with the uncertainty of modern day living, when extremists who came from thousands of miles away can fly planes into our national institutions and destroy cherished lives. Perhaps it is because we are too busy and the issues are too complex for us to think it all through and so those who are certain offer a comforting way forward. Perhaps it is just the human mind at work, as the social scientists suggest. Being doubtful about what to do when the hungry bear approached the entrance to your cave was not a prescription for survival of the fittest.

The danger now is that the thirst for certainty blocks us from humility. And it is humility we need to both find more resilient truths and to build stronger bridges among our fellow partners on the planet. Yet humility is too often seen as a sign of weakness, as if admitting you don't know the answer is far worse than being sure of an answer that is wrong. Will Rogers had a saying for that: "It's not what we don't know that gives us trouble. It's what we know that just ain't so."

In the spirit of fostering a little more humility in our private thinking and our public discourse, it might be worth remembering that some of those we admire the most have also been humble and engaged in frequent self-doubt. The two most admired presidents, Washington and Lincoln, were known for their humility. So were Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. And, the last time I looked, the Bible never cast Jesus as possessed of arrogant self-certainty.

Humility is not just a good character trait; it makes for better citizenship. At the close of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin spoke to his fellow delegates, who had spent four months arguing, often to the point of dissolution, over many aspects of the plan in the document now before them. He called for a unanimous vote, even while noting that he had his own reservations about some of its provisions. Yet he acknowledged his own fallibility and asked them to confront the danger of their certainty as well: "Most men," he said, "think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error." Yet, "when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does..."

Too many of us are certain our political and policy views are perfection. Franklin reminds us that a democracy depends not so much on perfect solutions as on humble collaboration. If they could listen, why can't we?