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The cult of certainty caught by cricket chaos



In a combative world where even sport is as joyless as was trench warfare in another age, the quirky ending of the Headingly cricket Test was an unexpected delight. In successive balls a botched run-out and an umpire's decision that would have been overturned had the Australians' right to review not been exhausted left the way open to an extraordinary victory to the English team and pride by both teams.

Ben Stokes of England celebrates hitting the winning runs to win the 3rd Specsavers Ashes Test match between England and Australia at Headingley on 25 August 2019 in Leeds, England. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)The game was followed by the usual joyless comment about the failure of the umpire to get it right, and some wiser reflection about the accuracy of the electronic system used in appeals against initial decisions. These events prompt wider reflection on the broader quest for certainty in human affairs, and the consequent impatience with human judgment, whether in weather forecasting, sporting adjudication, judicial verdicts, student assessment or government grants.

It is common to distrust human experience and intuition and to seek in technology infallible means of assessment that do not depend on human subjectivity. Human judgments are liable to error. Judgments relying on sophisticated technology promise certainty in which the vagaries of human judgment and difference are removed.

A world in which there is no error and in which certain answers can be given to all human questions is understandably attractive. It can be sought in different ways. The first way is to adhere firmly to general principles that decide specific cases regardless of their confusing differences from one another. Dedicated supporters of football teams often work on the principle that their players are always in the right. Whenever the whistle may blow it must blow in their favour.

In times of public anxiety, too, people can have certainty about the general principles that should determine judicial decisions. In the American South many worked on the principle that a black man accused of killing a white woman was necessarily guilty and that a white man accused of killing a black woman was necessarily innocent. They credited and discredited their word accordingly. They then expected the courts to give judgments that reflected their certainties. If they did not, mobs would sometimes take it on themselves to administer justice in accordance with their certainties.

In the face of certainty about decisions taken in sporting contests or in courts of justice, reasoned argument and the sifting of evidence about the particularity of each situation are irrelevant. Their conclusions will be used as weapons by those who agree with the decisions based on them and dismissed by those who disagree.

We can also seek certainty through an infallible arbiter, preferably one without human susceptibilities. In our culture computer programs are the preferred options. When questions can be reduced to what a machine can process, whether by judging the path of ball and players in sporting contests or by judging academic prowess in examinations, we can allow ourselves to trust the decisions and rankings as certain.


"Truth matters only when we recognise in each human being an irreducible value that demands respect."


In human affairs the quest for certainty faces two challenges. In the first place people need to trust that the machines and the general principles that dictate decisions are up to the job. Otherwise the decisions will need to be corroborated and accepted by fallible human beings. In cricket the third umpire is not technology but a human being whom it serves.

The second difficulty is that in matters where human subjectivity and relationships are involved there can often be no certainty, only probability. People will perceive events in which they have been participants in different ways, will remember them in different ways and interpret them in different ways.

In events where human intention and motivation were central to interpretation, even the protagonists may be unaware of what they had in mind and at heart at the time. As a result the simplest description of an event such as a killing can be in question. Even if that fact is relatively clear, the shape of the complex human relationships involved in the event will remain mysterious.

In the face of the mystery of human behaviour and the fallibility of human judgment it can be attractive to trust the convictions and technologies that promise certainty. The reason why we should resist this temptation lies in the mystery and the value of human beings. These qualities require us to privilege truth over certainty. Truth matters only when we recognise in each human being an irreducible value that demands respect.

Respect in turn means that decisions taken about human beings in all their activities must be human decisions that are rightly made. The greater the human consequences of those decisions — loss of reputation and freedom, in comparison with the loss of a game — the more punctilious the respect must be. And the more despised the persons and the groups to which they belong, the more painstaking must be the effort to set aside certainties.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Ben Stokes of England celebrates hitting the winning runs to win the 3rd Specsavers Ashes Test match between England and Australia at Headingley on 25 August 2019 in Leeds, England. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, sport, cricket



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Existing comments

I always go back to John 8. Those who are so critical of these sorts of human frailties are all too often the ones demanding their own errors be forgiven.

ErikH | 05 September 2019  

Thank you yet again Andrew for your wonderful insights into our very human natures. You have made me less ready to criticise or judge others, or form opinions -before more reflection.

Margaret Atchison | 05 September 2019  

One of the great moments in both Rugby codes is the try.The regular use of technology to adjudicate on this is a recent, unwelcome addition to both sports. Now the moment is killed as, usually, we must wait for sensitive cameras to prove that what we think we saw did really happen. This is a particular problem in the fifteen-a- side game which is a ponderous spectacle at the best of times. The gear used here seems to be not as modern as in Rugby League. Occasionally the gap between the "try" and its forensic evaluation is far too long. The, often spectacular, feat, becomes lost as mere mortals seek a certitude that probably removes, or certainly lessens, the possibility of human error. let us get back to the toleration of mortal frailty the elimination of which comes at too great a cost to sport as a game and as a spectacle.

Grebo | 08 September 2019  

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