Uncertainty, Science, and You

Feeling uncertain, or even frightened, in our current COVID-19 global reality? You’re not alone. Uncertainty reigns pretty much everywhere these days, despite confident pronouncements of one kind or another from political leaders, pundits, and even scientific experts. The good news is that uncertainty is a key feature of science; the bad news is that humans don’t, in general, deal with uncertainty easily, or even rationally, much of the time.

In my last piece for PEN, I shared my “reliable sources” for trustworthy information in our pandemic times. Now, I’ll work on helping you figure out how to deal with the uncertainty that’s baked in to the effort to get us all through COVID-19’s impact on our lives and our communities.

First, let’s talk about the personal impact of uncertainty. One of the things I’ve built my consulting career on is my knowledge of improv – yes, that same thing that happens in comedy clubs and training classes, at least when we’re not all on house arrest due to global pandemics. I’ve taught improv classes to business groups, showing them how “yes, and” can lead to all sorts of good things, from better team collaboration to better emotional intelligence. Listening is the secret sauce in improv – it’s impossible to participate without listening to your scene partners, jumping in with “yes, and” when the conversation and action is thrown to you.

Working without a script is the definition of improv. It’s also the definition of living through a pandemic, particularly one that’s a new disease caused by, say, a “novel coronavirus” like SARS-CoV-2. Working without a script is also the definition of uncertainty. So, listening closely to yourself, and to the people in your life (be they in your home, or now-virtual folks), and responding with a “yes, and” mindset can help you stay emotionally grounded. That’s my recommendation for managing uncertainty on a personal level, emotionally.

What about the uncertainty festering daily over what’s happening with COVID-19 diagnosis, treatment, vaccine development, and social distancing rules to flatten the infection curve? Science runs on uncertainty. Experiments and studies start with a “what if” question, and then embark on an effort at an answer. One of the best explainers on COVID confusion is from Ed Yong in the Atlantic, “Why the Coronavirus Is So Confusing.”

This sentence jumped out at me:

This is how science actually works. It’s less the parade of decisive blockbuster discoveries that the press often portrays, and more a slow, erratic stumble toward ever less uncertainty.

It’s been alternately entertaining and enraging to watch the global scientific community wrestle with COVID in real time, with virtual fistfights erupting between experts in various disciplines over what’s actually happening in clinical trials, in frontline treatment outcomes, and in testing. Then there are the armchair “experts” who have no scientific background in virology or epidemiology, but plenty of confident opinions on what the solutions are to managing the pandemic.

Ed Yong’s Atlantic piece is worth your time to read – it will help you cut through the seemingly never-ending noise about what science is telling us (and the scientists) about COVD-19, the coronavirus that’s causing it, and where we might be going from here.

Meanwhile, some rules to live (through uncertainty) by:

  • Listen and “yes, and” your way along
  • Preprints are not peer reviewed science
  • No one really knows what’s going on, it’s always “best educated guess” territory at best
  • Wash your hands