I’ve been reading a lot of things recently involving the words “uncertainty” and “risk”.
For one thing, I’m a bit of a nerd about security, so I read Schneier on Security and to a lesser extent John Robb’s Global Guerillas. Schneier’s is a household name among network engineers and system administrators. Robb’s analysis sometimes fails to impress, due to his shallowness in some of the fields he brings together, but his broader derivations about 21st century war and security (as read in his book, Brave New War) are reasonable and at times novel and compelling. Both share my disdain for the security industrial complex, which they see as too incompetent and/or too politicized to provide effective solutions based on rational risk-analysis.
Understanding risk (or put another way, probability) lies at the heart of security, and of systems-level engineering, and at a deeper level is integral to all scientific discovery. And it is very difficult. I know fully well that in my day-to-day decision making, I make plenty of intuitive judgments that are systematically flawed in how they handle risk and reward. And in fact this has led me to want to study the art of rationality itself, which includes the foundational principles necessary for risk analysis as well as insight into how and why people get it wrong.
It’s disconcerting whenever you discover a source of uncertainty or unreliability lurking somewhere between your beliefs about the world and the truth of the world. I went through this in school when I realized all news sources must be treated with skepticism. I went through it again when I learned people’s reasoning from evidence is often wrong, even when they’re not trying to deceive. And let’s not forget that perception itself is fake, i.e. the brain fudges information to form complete experiences when in fact the direct neural input is full of gaps.
Regardless, the solution is not to give up, or to pretend these flaws don’t exist. As long as you have logic and creativity, you can see the different realities that might explain what your mind sees, and painstakingly collect the information that will distinguish truth from fiction. And if the answer turns out to be that your world is chaotic, with many equally likely future states (chaos is one of the things people can mean by “uncertainty”), then you can act on your lack of knowledge by designing for multiple contingencies.
I’d like to tell you that being an Aspie makes this easy to apply to life, and that being a logical-minded person it’s easy to overcome those built-in biases and deal with risk and uncertainty properly. I’d like to.
Actually, the way I deal with uncertainty is terrible. When it gets bad enough, I have a tendency to shut down. This is why I tend to seek stability, settle for what already works, and it’s at least part of why I have trouble forming and changing routines. Even though much of my day-to-day living is worked out on-the-fly with minimal planning or structure, I hate the feeling of my life being aimless or up in the air. Examples of this are changes in relationship status, jobs, or housing.
For the last year I have been dealing with more uncertainty than at any previous time. In this case “uncertainty” primarily means not chaos but compounded risk, and a new set of restrictions on my long-term strategy. I have increased my risk of dying young by something less than the (very low) odds of current treatments failing to keep my cancer at bay. Not a huge deal in and of itself. But I’ve also significantly increased uncertainties about what I can do in my life and my career, because to afford my treatment I must have health insurance at all times.
I need new strategies for a number of things right now, mostly to do with personal motivation and coping with emotional baggage, but decision making (including risk assessment) is bound to be in there somewhere. Because my bias against uncertainty is overwhelming, I need to learn what practices will make me feel safe and secure, as well as which actually do improve my situation. And I need to codify the values by which I plan to weigh decisions, now that I know life is going to be that much more complicated than I ever expected. A mission statement would not be out of place.