Risks and Rewards in a World of Unknowns

Risks and Rewards in a World of Unknowns

Perhaps the greatest emotion many of us are feeling right now is uncertainty — surrounding COVID-19, surrounding the trade-offs for ourselves, our family, and our community, and even surrounding the future of our country.

Professors Emily Oster and Stuart Firestein tackled these issues as part of our series “Learning from Scientific Experts for the Yamim Nora’im.” What does it really mean when we say “we don’t know,” and what’s the difference between “the data is unclear” or “our recommendations have changed” versus “we don’t care what experts have to say”? Where is there value in living in the unknown, and how can we accept uncertainty? How do we frame questions in terms of risk vs. reward, especially because most people are looking for certainty? How does our framing impact the recommendations we give? How do we live with trade-offs? And what happens if we felt like we had made the wrong decision afterwards?

This webinar was presented by Sinai and Synapses, in consultation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion, and funded by the John Templeton Foundation. It was run in partnership with Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly, and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.

Professor Emily Oster: “You Don’t Need An Answer, You Need a Way to Decide”

“I want to talk about how to decide. I think part of what for me has been really challenging about this pandemic is just the incredible uncertainty that has sort of pervaded all of our decisions. So we’re kind of all facing a lot of choices that we don’t expect, and that we didn’t expect to be facing, and not choices that other people have had made before, not situations which other people have experienced before. And so I think for you, I would guess that you, as a rabbi, are facing a bunch of decisions, so things like: ‘Should we have services? In what way? In what way should people wear masks? Should they wear no masks? Should they sit every other seat? Should we have pods in our services? What would that even mean? Should we limit who can come, should we tell the older people in our congregation that they can’t come?’ Of course, those may be the people who would benefit the most from seeing you and hearing what you have to say.

And so I think those are the kind of things that you’re probably thinking through. At the same time, you’re facing people who want answers from you and their families. And these are the kinds of questions that I’m getting all the time, you know, ‘Should I send my kids to school? Should they see their relatives? Should they see their grandparents? When should they see their grandparents? Should we eat out? Is it okay for us to see our friends? Can we go to services? Can we shop for groceries?’ And all of these questions are kind of around, and they’re sort of overwhelming in their frequency and their difficulty. 

And the simple point that I’ve been trying to make in a lot of the writing I’ve been doing is that everyone is facing a different set of these decisions. And even among the people whose question is ‘Should my kid go to daycare?’ or ‘Should I have services?’ the choice, the sort of frame of that decision, is totally different, the circumstance is totally different. So if your congregation is in Houston, you’re facing a very different situation than if your congregation is in Providence – at least this week. Maybe it’ll be different next month. If you are a family and you have an immunocompromised parent at home and your kid is going to go to daycare, that’s a very different situation than if you don’t have that. People face different financial circumstances. Can I afford to stay home with my kids? Do I need to send them to childcare so I can work? There are a lot of things that are layered on top of it. 

So the headline that I keep just telling people and saying over and over again is, ‘You don’t need an answer, you need a way to decide.’ Because giving you an answer, even for your very specific question right in this moment, that’s not going to be the right answer maybe even tomorrow, or next week, or Thursday night, and certainly not in September, when you face those choices around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” 



Professor Stuart Firestein: The Value in Uncertainty

I’d like to introduce a term that I think would be very valuable to us now, it’s a term that I didn’t coin, but was coined by the dreamy-eyed poet here John Keats, in a letter to his brother in 1817 called “negative capability.” It may sound a little oxymoronic, but I think it’s a very valuable trait to practice, to learn. And Keats defined negative capability as ‘that is, when a man [a person] that is, capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ That is, this idea of being patient with uncertainty, patient with mystery, and patient with doubt, he thought that this was a critical frame of mind to develop, because he considered it the ideal creative state for the literary mind. I would say it’s the ideal creative state for the scientific mind as well, and indeed, maybe the ideal creative state for anyone’s mind – this notion of ‘The world does have uncertainties, the world is full of mysteries, the world is full of doubts, and we should learn to manage that, we should learn to immerse ourselves in those and enjoy them, because this is where creativity comes from.’

And so this tells us that the unknown is an interesting place, but of course, even greater than the unknown, there is the much feared unknown unknown, if you will. That is, what we don’t even know we don’t even know. And many of you in the audience today will remember that this phrase was made famous most recently by Donald H. Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense who was responsible for the ill-begotten military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. And in a testimony to a Senate hearing about why it went so badly, he said, “Well, there were some things we didn’t know, of course, and that was a problem, but the real problem was there were all these unknown unknowns, the things we didn’t even know we didn’t know.” 

Now, he is somewhat roundly criticized and ridiculed for this statement, but it’s actually of course quite clever. And I’m happy to say he’s not the first person to have said it, it had been around for awhile. But the earliest remarks that I can find is certainly those that would be of interest to us today, were from another D.H., not D.H. Rumsfeld, but D.H. Lawrence, the poet, in a long narrative poem called “New Heaven And Earth,” written in 1917, which is essentially about the transition from this earthly plane to whatever awaits us in the next plane, post-this-earthly-plane. And he talks about this as  “the great unknown.” And near the end of this lengthy poem is this stanza that  reads “Now here was I, new-awakened,” – of course, at this moment of transition – “New-awakened with my hands stretching out and touching the unknown, the real unknown, the unknown unknown.”  

And I think it’s just both a spiritual idea and a useful idea in our lives today, because we are confronted with the unknown unknown. And this virus that we’re all dealing with now, of course, it’s not just the unknowns about it, it’s not just the uncertainties, but it’s the things we don’t even know we don’t even know about it, and continue to find out each day and change our uncertainty in unpredictable ways.  

So we not only have uncertainty, we have unpredictable uncertainty. Could you ask for anything worse? Well, I would say yes. You could ask for certainty, which in some ways would be worse. I would say certainty can be a problem, and that there is a value in uncertainty, and we should begin looking for it now.”

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