Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Crux of it...all?

My husband and I are both, in our heart of hearts, disease control folks. We delight in the nuance of disease and especially, especially utilizing all of the information and data we can synthesize and bringing it to bear on policy making. A trusted epidemiologist advising a public policy entity can have tremendous impact on an emerging health event.

Quite naturally, we've been totally scrutinizing the various public responses to occurrence of Swine Flu. I've gone on enough about how I see things; what is intriguing me today is the differences my husband and I have noted in our reaction to control measures. It comes down to a single factor: how do we handle uncertainty? This seems to me to be a very important measure of a person, of an organization and of communities.

There was a time when I would not support decision making that I couldn't provide solid scientific data for: zero tolerance for uncertainty. Indeed, many scientists think this way and are fortunate enough to work in situations where they need never accommodate or consider the possibility, impact or scale of uncertainty in their findings. I suppose that our society's reliance upon, and demand for, scientific precision in policy making is a natural consequence of the evolution of our world: from industrial to technological.

I find this reluctance to allow for tolerance of uncertainty acting out in every segment surrounding this Swine Flu issue. The public will not accept that the most vigilant, concerned and qualified scientist can not say with absolute certainty that most of us are at about 0 risk of becoming ill and certainly not of substantial morbidity. Public policy officials are extremely reluctant to appear uncertain and they will largely choose to adopt a position of certainty that acts in the best interest of their electorate. And of course, media pundits would not BE media pundits if they weren't certain.

I think in very, very many ways our world would be a more reasonable place if we as individuals, organizations and communities learned to manage uncertainty with more grace and restraint. Some quick reflection suggests to me that abhorrence of uncertainty explains a LOT of policy making in certain sectors and a couple of specific political parties.

What do you think of uncertainty and how it influences both organizational and personal behavior?
I think there must be some very interesting stories to be told in answering that question


jill said...

I think the discomfort with uncertainty is one of the hallmarks of society in its current iteration. People confuse science with complete predictability, and the failure of science to live up to this unrealistic ideal creates windows that enable pernicious nonsense like creationism and "intelligent design."

As a communications professional, I think we need to be realistic about the predictive limitations of science in our public communications. I'm not sure how much more we can do here: popular television shows that include forensics as major plot points give the populace an unrealistic view of what science is capable of. But I'm also not sure how hard science policy types are trying to reach into public perception. It isn't enough to put out graded warning levels. It's a tough communications problem, and I'm not envious of those people who have the day to day management of it.

KHM said...

Agreed, very much so. My previous post that outlined my reasoning for being rather reserved about our current situation is too much to put out for the public and truthfully, the decision making IS that complicated. What is needed, then, is trust in policy makers based on accepting some tolerance of uncertainty.

But I'm also very very very intrigued about how we manage uncertainty in our intimate lives as humans. I think my marriage is among the more enviable ones I've had personal knowledge of and I know that our relationship has grown and indeed, navigated some large challenges, by either one or both of us accepting some uncertainty, taking a risk, if you will. I suppose this intrigue is rather zen in nature...