Three Cheers For Nervous Hand-Wringing

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, July 1, 2007

Here's who we need in Washington: Socrates. The Greek fella. We need him not because of what he knew, but because of what he knew he didn't know, which was pretty much everything. He was one of the all-time great doubters. Listen to Loyal Rue, a professor of science and religion at Luther College, describe him:

"He would say things like, 'How do you know that? What's the evidence for that? What do you really mean when you say that? Here's the implication of that claim. Here's the danger you get into if you try to generalize that claim and apply it to everyone.' "

Give Doubt a Chance: This could be a rallying cry for our troubled times.

Doubt has been all but outlawed in contemporary Washington. Doubt is viewed as weakness. You are expected to hold onto your beliefs even in a hurricane of contradictory data. Believing in something that's not true is considered a sign of character.

The president sets the tone: He told Bob Woodward that he relies on "gut instinct" and said, "I'm not a textbook player. I'm a gut player." Blogger Glenn Greenwald's new book, "A Tragic Legacy," opens with something Bush told journalists last September: "I've never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions." The smart bet: He'll become more convinced yet. He's not the type to slap his forehead and say, " What a bonehead I am!"

Then there's Dick Cheney, a one-man branch of government who, we can safely estimate, second-guesses himself as often as he re-roofs his house.

The certainty-mongering of the Bush administration has created an opening for political opponents. Al Gore's latest book criticizes Bush for his "seeming immunity to doubt." He has found a market for books with "Truth" and "Reason" in the title. Hillary Rodham Clinton, meanwhile, declares that Democrats are an "evidence-based" party. Of course, Gore and Clinton radiate a fair amount of certainty themselves. Politics isn't for equivocators. At the elite level, there's pressure to prove oneself the surest and smartest person in the room. Think of former House speaker Newt Gingrich: In your mind, you see him emitting certainties with the air of a man who is delighted (but not surprised) to be right once again.

And now even the doubters have become overly certain. Look at all the atheism books on the bestseller lists. In "God Is Not Great," Christopher Hitchens writes, "The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species." But it's hard to think of a public intellectual more certain of himself than Hitch. (Carl Sagan was certainly no believer, but he once told me, "An atheist has to know a lot more than I know.")

But in an age of warring certainties, of dogmas gone ballistic, uncertainty is viewed as the shaky prelude to going wobbly. Confidence is what citizens look for in their leaders and, increasingly, in their pundits. The pros know that John Wayne never said, "On the other hand . . . " It's dangerous to change or modify a position. The worst thing you can say about a politician today is that "he was for it before he was against it."

Washington is full of alpha males (some of them female) who would no sooner express doubt than join a knitting circle. Their mantra is "Failure is not an option." But perhaps we might suggest (meekly) that sometimes failure needs to be an option -- which is to say, you ought to have a Plan B in case your initial indubitable judgment turns out wrong.

We need to rehabilitate doubt and uncertainty and recognize them as tools for cutting through mushy notions and wishful thinking. We need to stop elevating decisiveness over intelligence in the list of political virtues. We need leaders who think more like scientists, who know that knowledge is provisional, that today's orthodoxy might be invalidated tomorrow. We need to learn how to think again.

Jerome Kagan, professor emeritus of psychology at Harvard, says we've valued ultra-confident leaders since time immemorial. "The public is uncertain," he notes, "and they look to their leaders for certainty, for confidence. De Gaulle, Churchill, Roosevelt: In times of crisis, you want a person who appears to you to know exactly what he is doing. That's not recent or American. That's human."

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