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The Upside of Uncertainty

“In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

While Switzerland never made cuckoo clocks (you can thank the Germans for the novelty time-keeper), this quote from Orson Welles’ “The Third Man” nevertheless reveals an important truth. For as much as times of uncertainty produce error, they also drive creativity. Realizing the upside of ambiguity is an important part of making the most of our modern era.

Jamie Holmes’ new book “Nonsense” looks at this “power of not knowing.” Uncertainty is ambiguity as a state of mind. Yet humans are creatures seeking certainty. We yearn for closure, to rid ourselves of limbo and complexity for the sake of action.

[pq]For as much as times of uncertainty produce error, they also drive creativity.[/pq]

Our tendency toward certainty would be all well and good if it didn’t lead us to do dumb things, or if it weren’t so easy to manipulate our simplifying state of mind. How we deal with threats (poorly) or construct stereotypes (with aplomb) are all influenced by our feeble attempts to resolve contradictory information. The more complex a situation is, or the presence of stress and fear pushes us toward resolution faster than may be good for us. For instance, a study found that simply putting a noisy copier machine in a jury room leads to faster verdicts rather than better verdicts.

Extrapolated across an entire country, we are more likely to turn to leaders who promise resolution in irresolute times. Never mind that periods of upheaval often generate creative moments, such as rock’n’roll in the 1960s. As the current presidential election proves, we still have a soft spot for dictatorially-minded leaders offering glib assurances in the face of disruption.

There is a time for projecting certainty, such as in war. After the attacks on 9/11, we wanted to know precisely when and where another attack might occur, and we embraced leaders who spoke to us in certain terms. In the moment though, perhaps away from the podium or bullhorn, we need our leaders embracing uncertainty. That is, being willing to revise their assessments as new facts come in.

When we look for answers about the future, we do so with an eye on the past. Which is why today’s uncertainty—with economic disruption and the constant specter of terrorism—appears to be yielding a politics of nostalgia. We have nothing but options today, like too many jams to choose from, and we are awash in a sea of subcultures. Those on the left and right look back to the 1950s for their beau ideal—the “peak of the passing order,” as Yuval Levin put it. Nostalgia weaves a compelling yarn about The Great American Mayberry: a simpler time of predictability and security.

Rather than dismissing the search for certainty out of hand, we should see it as the natural order of things. For political leaders looking for answers in today’s politically uncertain moment, they should recognize that stories—rather than facts alone—will help answer our collective search for closure. Narratives provide a framework for resolving uncertainty. And such stories may be easier than ever to fashion, as AEI’s Arthur Brooks has no doubt realized. Uncertainty can light the fires of creativity and, when harnessed rightly, point the way to a more certain future.