Sunday, 5 February 2017

Why I’m Not Certain

by Tom Fairman



In my work Secret Santa this year I received a mug which is completely black, but when you put a hot drink in it, it reveals the following message: Statistics mean never having to say you’re certain. It is a lighthearted statement, but reflects something deeper in society at the moment. Politicians and advertising agencies continually use statistics to support the points they are trying to make as if they are certain facts; such as using this baby bath makes your baby go to sleep quicker and for longer or the majority of people who commit atrocities come from particular countries. This use of statistics is dangerous and just wrong.
Statistical testing allows us to make statements with a certain degree of accuracy through a process of hypothesis testing, which is useful as a guide but is never meant to be a fundamental truth. It only reveals the pattern of what has happened before and any prediction for the future is extrapolation which assumes that the relationship which has held before will continue to hold. Clearly this takes an element of faith and therefore it is a discipline for describing the past rather than predicting the future. For a world where showing doubt is a sign of weakness, this presents a huge problem.
The media deals in truths, statements made with 100% conviction, which if shouted enough times or repeated in enough articles with a few numbers in it become the truth that is accepted by the people who hear it. If a politician admits they do not know, or if they suggest that there may be alternative solutions to a problem; they are ridiculed. If they take time to consider a situation before passing instant judgement, they are accused of dithering. Yet we can never be certain of what we profess and each profession is made in faith that the world will be what it has always been. St Paul captures this in his statement: “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”
Does that mean we should not profess anything, have no opinion on the benefits of any product or policy, hide under a basket and make no comment? I don’t think so. Opinions form the basis of many positive debates and differing opinions allow for innovation and progress if each person realises their opinion may not be 100% accurate. This requires a massive dose of humility, to be able to admit you do not have all the answers puts you in a difficult situation. It may question the very foundations upon which you stand and can lead you to change long held beliefs, from the trivial product that you have always preferred, to how you view certain people from a certain country.
However the best profession of what is true for you is in what you do. St Francis of Assisi says “Preach the gospel and if necessary use words”. This is the light that shines from within into a world of darkness. You cannot have dialogue with someone who believes they are holders of the complete truth, but by doing something that brings goodness into another’s life, you can break through the walls of certainty. By small acts of love that make life taste good again for those who have lost a taste for it, you can allow a light to shine in the darkness of their certainty. Love for those we meet needs no hypothesis test to show it works.
People will question why you do it. They may reject the kindness that is presented to them. They may argue against your reasons for doing it. Yet that is no excuse for hiding the light from them. Everyone deserves to know that their certainties of life may not be true. The light will permeate and go wherever it can; you can be sure of that. Bring some light into someone’s world, be their salt. It may not work out quite how you knew it would, but you can never be certain.

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