Uncertainty Phobia and Epistemic Forbearance in a Pandemic

In Anneli Jefferson, S. Orestis Palermos, Panos Paris & Jonathan Webber (eds.), Values and Virtues for a Challenging World. Cambridge University Press. pp. 271-291 (2022)
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In this chapter I show how challenges to our ability to tame the uncertainty of a pandemic leaves us vulnerable to uncertainty phobia. This is because not all the uncertainty that matters can be tamed by our knowledge of the relevant probabilities, contrary to what many believe. We are vulnerable because unrelievable wild uncertainty is a hard burden to bear, especially so when we must act in the face of it. The source of unrelievable wild uncertainty is that the nature of probability distributions matters for whether knowledge of them tames uncertainty. It matters because a warrant for the taming is provided by two theorems, but this warrant applies only to some kinds of probability distribution. Essentially, this is because the theorems are about what happens at a mathematical limit but real life never reaches the limit. Consequently, the warrant depends on how quickly the random processes producing the uncertainty converge towards their limit. If they are governed by one class of probability distributions, they converge quickly enough to possess the warrant. If they are governed by another class of probability distributions, they converge towards their limit too slowly and so do not possess that warrant. The random processes of pandemics involve the slow kind . Faced with such a burden, as we are in a pandemic, we are tempted to retreat into uncertainty phobia, leading to fixed definite opinions, precisely when the exercise of sound judgement to determine our responses requires our opinions to be hedged and mobile. Coping with a pandemic requires us to bear the burden of unrelievable wild uncertainty rather than give in to the temptation of uncertainty phobia. Pandemics require the virtue of epistemic forbearance.

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Nicholas Shackel
Cardiff University


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