The Difference Between Sounding Certain & Being Correct

Off the Wall

Mike – The Way I Heard It has to be the best title of any book, ever. It’s refreshing to hear someone with a large platform say, “I could be wrong.” Your chapter on the difference between sounding certain and being correct – “Off by Roughly Two Trillion” – should be required reading by everyone at CNN and FOX. Kudos! Also love the epigram from Travis McGee – “Be wary of all earnestness.” Indeed!

Judy Reinhardt

Thanks Judy. If you liked that one, you might also enjoy this Twitter feed I recently discovered. It’s called COVID One Year Ago, and if it weren’t so horrifying, it would be hysterical.

Check out these quotes and headlines from last February. They’re notable, not because they’re so wrong and so recent, but because they’re so certain.

February 5, 2020, Los Angeles Times: “How to prevent coronavirus: Wash your hands and ditch the mask.”

February 5, 2020, USA Today: “US surgeon general: Americans should be more concerned about the flu than coronavirus.”

February 6, 2020, Bloomberg News: “How to Avoid Coronavirus on Flights: Forget Masks, Says Top Airline Doctor”

February 9, 2020, New York City Health commissioner Dave Chokski: “Today our city is celebrating the LunarNewYear parade in Chinatown, a beautiful cultural tradition with a rich history in our city. I want to remind everyone to enjoy the parade and not change any plans due to misinformation spreading about coronavirus.”

February 17, 2020, USA Today: “[Dr. Anthony] Fauci doesn’t want people to worry about coronavirus, the danger of which is ‘just minuscule.’ But he does want them to take precautions against the ‘influenza outbreak, which is having its second wave.’”

February 18, 2020, California Healthline: “In the Alhambra Unified School District, where about half of the students identify as Asian, administrators discourage the use of face masks and try to explain to families that they don’t protect from disease, said Toby Gilbert, a spokesperson for the district. That is sound scientific advice.”

February 20, 2020, KERA, the north Texas NPR affiliate: “Experts Say Coronavirus Poses A Low Risk To The U.S. — So Why Are We So Afraid?”

On February 22, 2020, ABC News reported, “Health experts warn life-saving coronavirus vaccine still years away.”

Is it unreasonable for a casual observer to read through this hot mess and conclude that every one of these journalists, politicians, and scientists seemed more interested in fighting xenophobia than they were in protecting Americans from a potentially deadly virus? Is it unreasonable to wonder how many more Americans would have died as a result of these comments, had the virus turned out to be even deadlier than it is?

Some will argue, “But Mike, that isn’t fair. These people were just following the science. Science evolves, and when it does, reasonable people change their beliefs when new information is brought to light.”

I couldn’t agree more. But “following the science” wherever it may lead demands a measure of modesty. A willingness to be completely and totally wrong. So I would ask these defenders of the mistaken, “Where is their humility? Where are their apologies? Where is their embarrassment? Why do so many people in the public eye work so hard to sound so certain every time they hold forth?”

Obviously, the problem is not limited to COVID. Consider the claims driving the climate debate, and the certainty of those making them. I just watched John Kerry tell CBS, “The scientists told us three years ago we had 12 years to avert the worst consequences of climate crisis. We are now three years gone, so we have nine years left.” He said a great deal more as well, and he spoke as he always does, with absolute conviction and deep certainty.

So, John Kerry is certain, but is he right? Many believe he is not. Others believe he’s not only mistaken, but that he’s deliberately trying to mislead and frighten Americans for all sorts of political reasons. Are these people unreasonable for being skeptical? Are they conspiracy nuts? Are they “climate change deniers?” Or are they Americans who have grown wary of doomsayers who sound no less certain than Al Gore and so many others who have publicly attached a ticking clock to their endless predictions of certain doom?

2008: Al Gore Predicts that Earth’s “Ice Caps” Will Melt away

by 2014.

2007: Ten Years Left to Avert Catastrophe!

2001: “Snows of Kilimanjaro to vanish by 2020!”

2000: “Children Aren’t Going to Know What Snow Is in Five Years.”

1987: “Within 15 years, the earth will be warmer

than it has been in the past 100,000 years.”

1970: Earth Day Prof. Predicts A Super Ice Age Will Engulf The World.

1967: “Dire Famine by 1975.”

Again, these predictions are notable not because they were all so wrong, or delivered by experts. There notable because they were all so unapologetically certain. And yet, we still fall for it, over and over, year after year. I know a lot of reasonably intelligent people who now believe the world will end in nine years if we don’t abandon fossil fuels immediately. It’s not just that they believe it – they know it. They know it to the point where they’ll shout down all those who disagree, or dismiss them as deniers, or demand they be forbidden from speaking.

I’m not pointing any of this out to pick a fight with hardcocre environmentalists. I’m just saying that nowadays, the harder people work to sound credible, the less persuasive they appear. But who knows? Maybe John Kerry is right? Maybe there is a “climate crisis,” and maybe it’s all over in nine years. Personally, I think we’re going to make it to 2030 and beyond, but I don’t have a crystal ball, and I’ve been wrong before. On the other hand, I don’t need a crystal ball to see the crisis that is actually upon us. I refer to the credibility crisis unfolding as we speak.

We don’t have to wait nine years to see what happens when our press, our leaders, and our scientific community lose the faith and trust of the American people. All we have to do is look around for those in the public eye who have the trust of those on both sides of the aisle. It’s a pretty short list, and while I don’t imagine myself to be on it, it is why I called my book “The Way I Heard It,” and not “The Way It Was.” It’s also probably why W.B. Yeats, a far better writer than I, wrote this, at the end of his poem, The Second Coming. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”

Of course, and to your point, Judy, Travis McGee said it even better, which is why his words appear in the front of my book.

“Be wary of all earnestness.”


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