And so ends 2016 – a year many have regarded as pretty topsy-turvy and trying at times. The focus of this month’s web roundup relates to how we operate when faced with uncertainty. The last twelve months have certainly shed light on how it is within our nature to crave and create structure and meaning for ourselves, and what happens when we are confronted with disruptions to our sense of what is fact, what is a result of our own belief systems, and where the two intersect.
One fact that we can all agree on is that we now live in a time of unprecedented access to information, with seemingly limitless ways to find out what we want to hear, precisely when we want to hear it. This article addresses the question of why so many are afraid of so much, with the authors suggesting that fears themselves create a new risk for our health and well-being that need to be addressed. Perhaps when it comes to anxiety in relation to the unknown, it is sometimes better for us to be pessimistic from the start rather than suddenly thrown into the realm of uncertainty. The illusion of hope is more anxiety-inducing that the certainty of failure, and sometimes we are more adversely affected by not knowing if a result is going to be positive or negative than we are by expecting a negative result, as suggested here. Misperceiving certain risks may actually be more significant, and hazardous, than any one individual risk, however this is very much culturally based.
With risk comes uncertainty, something that can be seen in the proliferation of stories on the web related to how we arrive at our beliefs. In social psychology, there is the idea that the more uncertainty that exists in a person, the more a space is created for influence. There has been a lot of talk in the last few months about truth, fact, and the consequences of having so much information available to us. Psychological mechanisms such as confirmation bias, in which we seek to confirm or validate what we already know, are one reason the notion of “echo chambers” have taken hold in explaining the increasing polarization taking shape on a global scale. It is our own relationship to the unknown that steers how and what we choose to believe, something taken up in an interview with Jerome Ravetz, a “pioneer of post-normal science and a leading advocate of citizen science” discussing why it might be time to move beyond the doctrine of scientific certainty. The idea of democratizing science in an age of uncertainty positions specialized expert knowledge as not always being adequate to solve problems with multiple solutions. Whether it is lay knowledge, leaked documents, or other non-traditional sources of information, the extended peer community, or “citizen scientists” are crucial to emerging debates.
Addressing the question of scientific certainty and fact is no doubt central to the times we’re living in, and this growing wariness/skepticism around the idea of expert knowledge contributes to an unsettling sense of not knowing where to turn for the facts, and indeed what exactly constitutes a fact in the first place. This level of uncertainty fuels the spread of fake news (another talking point of 2016) as well as a lack of trust toward previously “established” sources of credible information (even scientific joke papers, once a lighthearted and funny addition to some peer reviewed journal publication years are now having a moment of reflection regarding how funny such pieces are in an age when just about anything can be adopted and perpetuated as factual ). The importance of lay knowledge in contributing to advances in, for example, service user led mental health movements has been a great boon to the decreasing stigma surrounding mental illness. But what about when competing, often contrary, lay knowledges drive the debates, as with climate change or links between vaccines and Autism. Our beliefs shape the core of our identity (one reason why its so hard to change someone else’s political beliefs, for example) leading any questioning to feel like a personal attack for many. This article in Nature profiles Hans Rosling in his quest to dispel outdated beliefs. He argues that experts can’t seek to solve major challenges if they are not operating on facts, however erasing long held beliefs and preconceived ideas is a challenge in and of itself. Facts, uncertainty, and belief are sure to be at the center of more and more discussion and debates in the social science in the years ahead, as social media becomes even more prevalent, and mechanisms for communication more sophisticated.
This post began with mention of the anxiety stemming from not knowing who or what to believe. Perhaps one small way to help alleviate this is in the form of a reminder of ways in which we are all connected. I didn’t want to end 2016 on a note of uncertainty, so I encourage you to have a look at this very cool website Radio Garden which allows you to listen to radio stations from even the most remote corners of the world.. Not directly related to anything else in this post, but perhaps a reminder of both the vastness and smallness of this world we share, and a reminder that amidst all of the uncertainty and questioning, we can still reflect on the beauty of human communication across borders.
Best wishes for a happy 2017.