The value of doubt
By Darren Gersh
When I was in high school, a teacher said about me, “I wish I was as sure about anything as Gersh is about everything.”
I miss that kid.
It was so comforting, so easy to have that kind of certainty. The kind that comes from knowing more about what you think than about how things truly work or, more to the point these days, don’t work.
I have spent a lot of time in my career striving to be sure about things. I’ve talked to all the right experts. I’ve interviewed all the right people. People tell me I’ve asked pretty good questions. And that work has been rewarded with some answers and some expertise.
Basis points? I’ve got that jargon down. When yield curves invert, I’ve learned enough to be worried. Markets have a kind of timing and rhythm, and I know how to hum along.
Being sure of yourself and your story is critical to good journalism. Viewers praise authoritative reporting. Which is why I was taught to get to the heart of a story. To tell the truth. To report what is really going on.
For many years that is what I earnestly set out to do. I interview Federal Reserve governors, treasury secretaries and billionaires. My sources understand the mysteries of monetary policy and can deconstruct intricate economic theories. On Wall Street, people who don’t know what’s going on are called “the dumb money.” I was determined to be in on the joke.
As I learned more, I came to value the qualities I found in the sources I respected most. Mastery. Authority. Truth.
For most of my career those values have served me well. I did my homework, mastered my material and felt I was becoming the expert I often played on television.
But just when I was most sure of myself, of my stories, that I understood how the world worked and of my place in it, damn near everything changed.
The exquisite money machine I had worked so hard to understand shorted out. Suddenly cut off from an easy source of funds, the economy staggered and fell. Public trust? You know what happened there.
What about the mastery, the authority I so admired in some economic experts? It turns out, nearly all the smartest people were wrong. Those who were the most sure of themselves were the farthest from the truth.
The reaction among journalists has been loud, but I believe, misguided. Why didn’t we see this coming? Why didn’t we warn people? We are beating ourselves up, because somehow we still think we should have seen it coming. Even in our doubt, we can’t let go of our certainty.
All that training – tell people the truth, tell them what is really going on, be the authority – is hard to give up, even when it’s clear we need to change the way we do business. Why can’t we admit we don’t – and can’t – know the future? Why do journalists still try to put meaning and a “narrative” to events that may have none?
Recently I had lunch with a friend who is retiring from the business of forecasting political and policy events. He’s made a very good living advising people who manage a great deal of money. And if anyone could claim to have seen what was coming when the bubble burst, he was one of them.
When I mentioned I was writing this essay, my friend told me about Philip Tetlock’s book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? It turns out, my friend says, that the best experts do not make the best forecasts. And the very worst forecasters are those who are most sure of their own opinions.
The more grand the theory, the more likely it was to be wrong. Tetlock found that “hedgehogs” – those who know one big idea and hammer away at it repeatedly – may be proven spectacularly right on rare occasions, but most of the time, they are just plain wrong. Still, television in particular, seeks out hedgehogs – one on each side, if you please. Makes for a great debate.
What makes a forecaster good? They are foxes. They know many small things. They stitch together bits and pieces of information into a quilt of analysis. But the foxes are skeptical of their ability to make sense of things. They are less likely to make big, firm pronouncements. They are not hedgehogs, but they do hedge their opinions. (And that makes them terrible interviews!)
In short, the ability to see further into the future, to make sense of chaotic events, depends on how much the expert embraces doubt. Mastery makes us feel good, but humility is more useful when it comes to seeing the world as it is.
If journalism is really about seeing the world for what it is, about telling the truth, then we have to take Tetlock’s point to heart. Which is why I now find myself trying to balance values of mastery and authority against new values of humility, doubt and caution.
This is shaky ground for a journalist, not to mention a middle-aged human being. How can I be an authority on television when I am beginning to think true authority lies in admitting what you do not know? What exactly can we be certain of, or at least certain enough of, to declare it is so in our stories?
I don’t know. Maybe as a journalist, I should find ways to use those words more often.
The day I started writing this, I came across the poem “You Are There” by Erica Jong. It ends:
To live is to be uncertain. Certainty comes at the end.
Was the universe speaking to me? I doubt it.
Darren Gersh’s piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.