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March 6, 2003

Dangerous Certitude

Like most of the world, I watched our President try to explain himself before the press tonight, and like more than half the world, I found it to be disheartening. Never have we fallen so far so fast. Never in modern times has there been someone so ill-equipped to be President, so completely in over his head. He is an embarassment.

More and more I'm beginning to believe that the important chasm in the world isn't between the rich and the poor, or Islam and the West, or liberals and conservatives. What matters is how people think. This President thinks in terms of black and white, and he and his supporters are proud of his ability to make a decision and stick to it. It's related to his religious beliefs, but it's hard to know which came first: the predisposition to gravitate towards simple responses to complexity or his identification with a church that does the same.

The first concept I studied in grad school that really resonated with me was something called warranted uncertainty: the ability to recognize when the most appropriate response to a situation is to say "I don't know". People have this ability in varying degrees and it seems to be subject to change through training. My own bias is to value warranted uncertainty, because the first step in learning is to recognize what you don't know.

It goes beyond epistemology, though... it isn't just what we think we know, but how sure we are of our own actions. Unwarranted certainty, the mirror image of warranted uncertainty, discourages learning and self-reflection. It stifles curiosity and flexibility. We are led by those with this mindset, for the moment, and it dominates the discourse on talk radio. The air has been poisoned by this for at least the last decade, and I only hope that like everything else, this will pass.

Shades of grade. Useful self-doubt. This is what they could all use a dose of: Al Sharpton, Rush Limbaugh, Ralph Nader, Madonna, George W. Bush, the Taliban, the 700 Club... all of them.

I'm almost certain of it.