I Believe in Doubt

Robin - Needham, Massachusetts
Entered on January 29, 2009
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: question, science

I believe in doubt. I believe in the limits of faith, and in maintaining some skepticism regarding even one’s own most deeply held convictions. I believe that being sure is not the same as being right.

I say this not just to turn a clever phrase, steeped in Socratic irony. Rather, I truly feel that we suffer on balance from too much rather than too little faith. I have faith in my friends and loved ones, and I do believe this sentiment enriches life and nourishes the soul. In the wider context of the world, however, my experience has been that too much belief clouds rather than illuminates the mind. Uncritically held conviction more frequently blocks real progress in understanding and overcoming the key challenges of life.

In my professional life as a physician and scientist, I am all too often proven wrong. I do my best to understand and to render thoughtful analyses, but sometimes I am mistaken. There is no escaping this fact: my diagnoses and hypotheses are all neatly transcribed for anyone to read and to notice where subsequent events have shown me to be in error. Looking back, I can see places where I felt certain I knew the answer -but where reality showed otherwise.

Having more than once been certain but wrong, sometimes in very serious matters, has made me try to preface every assertion -at least in my own mind- with the caveat: “But I’m only human. I might be mistaken.” I truly wish I could persuade more people to adopt a similar stance. What I see more often, though, is that otherwise smart and reasonable people block off parts of their minds, where emotionally important fixed convictions reside protected against reason and thoughtful criticism.

On a personal level, this can lead simply to foolish ideas about harmless topics. (I hesitate to give specific examples, since most of us hold at least a few silly notions; and I find that people generally stop listening when called out on their own beliefs.) In more serious subjects, though, certainty in one’s own rightness and in the wickedness of those who disagree, has given people latitude to be horribly cruel to one another. From small, individual acts of malice, to genocide-scale slaughter of the helpless, few human traits are more toxic than the tendency to let certainty trump decency, and to let conviction override compassion.

In the biomedical areas were I work, uncertainty is appropriate. We are dealing with systems far more complex than we understand, perhaps more than we are capable of understanding fully. Even here, though, many people retreat into the false comfort of a pretend assurance, protecting themselves from the anxiety of doubt by denying the extent of our ignorance. Rather, I wish we could embrace this complexity, using our partial and imperfect understanding to navigate ways forward.

Only in this way, I believe, can we face the world as it is, and treat one another -in all our differences- with true kindness.