Long Story Short: Knowing the known unknowns

Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)

In praise of uncertainty

"A sense of uncertainty about the future generates a strong threat or 'alert' response in your limbic system. Your brain doesn't like uncertainty—it's like a type of pain, something to be avoided. Certainty on the other hand feels rewarding, and we tend to steer toward it, even when it might be better for us to remain uncertain."

—David Rock, Psychology Today

Three words you will rarely see on social media: "I don’t know." Humans loathe ambiguity. The need for certainty is at the root of much of the extreme partisanship and rancor found on social media—which, due to the pandemic, has become our dominant form of interaction of late. Maybe it’s the harrowing times we live in, where even a trip to the grocery store is a high stakes proposition.

Online opinions are typically expressed in no uncertain terms, or through linked articles supporting the user’s convictions. The message is, "We’re right; they’re wrong," with little tolerance for anything that doesn’t reinforce our existing views. Uncertainty is unacceptable—especially with politically-charged issues—"even when it might be better for us to remain uncertain."

A topical illustration

I’ve addressed mask use during the pandemic before. The overwhelming majority of scientists agree that wearing a mask—and wearing it properly—when you can’t maintain adequate distance from others is an important tool in reducing the spread of COVID-19. But few people recognize the huge swath of ambiguity running through that statement.

The specific language of Governor Cuomo’s mask mandate states that people must cover their mouth and nose, "when in a public place and unable to maintain, or when not maintaining, social distance." Note the word "maintain." Does passing someone briefly without wearing a mask count as not "maintaining" distance?" It’s uncertain. Most experts agree that doing so poses near zero risk of infection. "If you’re going past someone very quickly in a grocery store," says Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital, "the risk of getting infected is very low."

Are masks necessary indoors in public places where you’re able to maintain distance? Some say yes, yet restaurants allow mask-free dining. Then too, what is "social distance?" Conventional wisdom says six feet, but new research suggests that a safer distance might be considerably further. Despite the uncertainty in these questions people on social media tend to voice opinions (and grievances) with unwavering conviction. The title of a story in the Atlantic says it all: Everyone Thinks They’re Right About Masks.


People often express the conviction that a particular event or behavior will result in a future COVID-19 spike. I’ve pointed out previously that social media was filled with dire warnings that noncompliance on Memorial Day was going to cause an upsurge. It didn’t. Many said the same again after the Fourth of July and again after the protests, but the infection and death rates in Western New York continued on a steady decline. Then restaurants opened, and again some people were certain that there would be a spike. But no spike (though, the infection rate took a slight upturn in Erie County last week—the only county in the state to go above 1%).

Then came reports locally and in New York City, of businesses that were not compliant, along with widespread non-cooperation among the public, and people were certain again that this would lead to increased infections. It hasn’t so far. Now, many schools are planning to open in September or soon after, with various precautions in place. Social media is split into two camps—those that are certain this will cause a spike in infections and deaths, and those who are equally certain it won’t. Few admit to not knowing.

Conflicting convictions

Governor Cuomo has been widely applauded for leading New York in bringing down the infection rate from the worst in the world to among the lowest in the country. However, the same people who praise his policies often disparage the public on social media for noncompliance, citing bars, restaurants, social gatherings, graduation parties, and people just not following the guidelines. Battling a virus isn’t like quantum physics; both things can’t be simultaneously true. Either the infection rates continue to drop because the public is compliant, or they’re not complying and Cuomo’s policies aren’t what’s bringing the numbers down. The truth may be somewhere in between, but don’t look for uncertainty among the ideologically pure.  

The other side of the coin

People on the political far right—and let’s just acknowledge that this issue breaks down along party lines—often espouse the conviction that masks are unnecessary, perhaps even dangerous, despite opposing scientific research. Some have played starring roles in viral videos documenting their antimask tantrum performances in a Walmart and other businesses. This group is as certain about their beliefs as mask enthusiasts are about theirs. I’ve received several unsolicited videos through social media of supposed medical doctors explaining why masks are unnecessary and hydroxychloroquine or oleander is a COVID-19 cure. "You need to know the truth," they say. The more extreme the claim, the more certain social media proponents are about it.

It should be just the opposite.

Uncertainty mounts

Research shows that wearing a good mask properly cuts your personal risk of infection by 65%. While I would be glad to reduce my chance of getting cancer by that much, I wouldn’t accept a 65% level of effectiveness in a condom.

Masks are far from certain protection. Assuming you’re onboard with the scientific consensus that mask-wearing is important, deciding what mask to use, and how to use it, adds more uncertainty. For a while, popular wisdom was that—assuming you couldn’t get N-95 masks—any face covering would do just fine. But a recent study demonstrated that different masks offer different levels of protection. Bandanas, for instance, are poor at stopping the virus. Neck gaiters—often worn with patronizing certainty by runners—were found to be worse than wearing no mask. Suddenly, Facebook was filled with gaiter warnings. Until follow-up articles pointed out that not all neck gaiters are created equal. I’ve previously published how to properly wear a mask, but I doubt many people follow these procedures. Now, an article in the Washington Post states that COVID vigilance has begun to flag as people become less afraid of the coronavirus.

Between many wearing ineffective masks, many using masks improperly, and general disregard for social distancing guidelines altogether, it would seem we have widespread compliance failure. And yet our infection numbers keep going down. Maybe masks and social distancing aren’t what’s slowing infections. I stated earlier that scientists agree that masks are essential, so is this a contradiction? No, it’s uncertainty.

Uncertainty aversion

"The human mind is incredibly averse to uncertainty and ambiguity;" says Maria Konnikova in an article in the New Yorker. "From an early age, we respond to uncertainty or lack of clarity by spontaneously generating plausible explanations. What’s more, we hold on to these invented explanations as having intrinsic value of their own. Once we have them, we don’t like to let them go."

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci often utters the phrase, "We do not know." Fauci understands uncertainty. Given the problems we face today, it would serve us all if we more readily embraced uncertainty.

Playing it safe

Imagine for a moment that masks serve no purpose in reducing COVID-19. What do you lose by wearing one? Personal freedom? Well, suppose they are in fact vital—as most scientists say—in getting COVID-19 under control. What do you lose by not wearing one? The answer: potentially your health or life, or the health or life of someone you love. Because you know nothing for certain, wear a mask and social distance. Otherwise you’re gambling with lives.  

Uncertainty’s other applications

The words, "I don’t know" can be useful in many situations. Here are a few examples:

Climate change: Scientists are in near unanimous agreement that the planet is warming, and human activity is causing it. But maybe you’ve heard arguments to the contrary. If you’re not a climate scientist, you can’t be certain. So think: what’s the worst that can happen if we support efforts to create a greener world? Slower economic growth? Maybe. What’s the worst that can happen if we don’t? Widespread global destruction and vast economic hardship. Because you read an article or saw a meme once, it doesn’t mean you know. So, the smart move is to go with the overwhelming majority of people who have dedicated their lives to climate science.

Hyperpartisanship: In a lengthy article on Vox, Lee Drutman writes, "For a long time, we assumed that while we might have strong political disagreements with each other, there were certain neutral arbiters in society whose authority we would all respect and abide by. There were enough generally agreed-upon facts that our disputes wouldn’t threaten the foundations of our political system. But for years now, we’ve been retreating into our separate tribal epistemologies, each with their own increasingly incompatible set of facts and first premises." 

This is where certainty is most rigid. Think: do you see many political disagreements on social media where someone acknowledges being uncertain? Instead of attempting to understand an opposing point of view, we demonize the person for holding it. Or we block them for disrupting the echo chamber we’ve constructed on social media, to reaffirm our convictions. We find ourselves saying things on Facebook that we would never say in person. Empathy is dead. Why? Because we are entrenched in the certainty that we are right.

Watching the Democratic National Convention, it was gratifying to hear Joe Biden talk about decency. "We can choose the path of becoming angrier, less hopeful, and more divided," he said in his Democratic presidential nomination acceptance speech. "A path of shadow and suspicion. Or we can choose a different path, and together, take this chance to heal, to be reborn, to unite."

I’m with Biden. I want to listen to opposing views. A good place for this is NPR, which has shows and podcasts like Left, Right, and Center and IQ2US that provide an opportunity to hear both sides of a hot topic voiced with intelligence. You may not change your mind, but it’s an unthreatening way to hear what others think. Or as Bryan Robinson says in his excellent Forbes article, to Escape the Bubble and Learn From Opposing Views.

Belief: That’s a word I try to avoid. Earlier in the year, when masks were still an unsettled issue within the international science community, and people were debating their value on Facebook, I repeatedly said, "I don’t know. I’m not an expert. All I can do is quote the experts." We know now that the experts were initially wrong in this case. However, trusting expert advice is almost always better than believing something because it feels right, or you know someone who swears by it, or because it seems like "common sense." If you follow the science, you’ll be right much more often than not. Remember, scientists are the folks that wiped smallpox off the face of the earth and nearly eradicated polio and a variety of other common diseases. Your friend with the meme didn’t.

The takeaway

Much of this is, of course, oversimplification for the sake of brevity. And you may feel strongly that some of what I’ve written is just not right.

Don’t be so certain.

Rochester museum schools Trump on suffrage

Readers are likely aware that President Trump commuted the prison sentence of his friend and political adviser Roger Stone, the latest of several controversial commutations or pardons he granted people for apparent political reasons. Last week, to mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote, Trump must have thought he had a pardon everyone could get on board with—Susan B. Anthony. In 1872, Anthony was arrested and convicted for illegally voting in Rochester. "She was never pardoned!" Trump announced excitedly, certain that this would play well with women voters. "Did you know that she was never pardoned? What took so long?" Clearly, he was expecting to score points by correcting this "oversight."

Not so fast

Anthony wouldn’t want a pardon, says  Deborah L. Hughes, President and CEO of Rochester’s  National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House. To pardon her would validate her trial, which she called "the greatest outrage history ever witnessed," beating Trump at his own hyperbole game by well over a century. Anthony has a point though. Being a woman, she was not allowed to speak as a witness in her defense at her trial. The judge overseeing her case dismissed the jury, pronounced her guilty, and then fined her $100. "I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty," she said at the time.

Insult to injury

The letter goes on to suggest that Trump would better honor Anthony by taking a clear stance against voter suppression and enforce and expand the Voting Rights Act of 1965. "Anthony was also a strong proponent of sex education, fair labor practices, excellent public education, equal pay for equal work, and elimination of all forms of discrimination," the letter adds, in a final subtle dig to Trump, who has been weak on these issues.

The first shot of the revolution

King Cuomo.

I’ve heard that term bandied about more than a few times by people who feel Governor Cuomo has gone too far in restricting businesses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a recent Facebook discussion, one commentator said about Cuomo, "He’s as authoritarian [and] bad as any third world dictator with no regard for people being able to work, survive, or [maintain] their business."

Now, nine Buffalo-area businesses have joined forces to sue Governor Cuomo, State Attorney General Letitia James, and the State Legislature over what they say are violations of their constitutional rights. They argue that Cuomo overstepped his authority with his COVID "Pause" executive orders, and the attorney general and state lawmakers should have intervened, but didn’t. The lawsuit alleges that James "abdicated her role" by enforcing the governor's orders. "The governor is neither a czar, nor a king," they say, echoing the derogatory nickname mentioned above.

Attorneys Steven Cohen and Corey Hogan, of the Amherst firm Hogan Willig, are handling the case on behalf of two "gentlemen’s clubs, Pharaohs and the Body Shop; three bars, Bimber's Delwood, Four Aces, and Cowboy Bar & Grill; a martial arts studio, Karate Ken's; a billiard hall, Bison Billiards; a bowling alley, Five Star Lanes; and a DJ service, Soonertunes Productions.

Next up

Another lawsuit is in the works, addressing music venues that follow all social distancing mandates, but are still restricted from opening. We hope to have more on that next week.

Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

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