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The truths beyond uncertainty



This period of social distancing and restriction has been called many things, some of them printable. One of the most common has been a time of uncertainty. Business leaders and media columnists chafe at the uncertainty that attends lessening personal restrictions, opening shops, schools and workplaces and allowing travel. Uncertainty damages investment and other economic activity.

Woman walking into light (Photo by Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

Uncertainty, however, is not an impediment to life which can be removed by clear and authoritative statements of dates to remove restrictions and get back to work. These may exude certainty, but it is fraudulent because they are based on uncertain assessments about COVID-19, its economic effects in Australia and elsewhere, and how people will respond in coming months. Our lack of sure knowledge condemns us to live in a state of uncertainty.  

For all the pain associated with our current lack of certainty, it has brought many benefits to our public life. Instead of being limited to an exchange of hostile slogans, political leaders have admitted to lacking adequate knowledge about COVID-19, about how it may be treated, about its spread, about the extent of any immunity gained from exposure to it, and about whether and when a vaccine may be available. In the face of their lack of certainty governments have sought and made public most supported wisdom about the virus and based their decisions on that.

The experts on whose advice they have relied, too, have been honest about the uncertainties that accompany their advice. They rely on the experience of past epidemics, its correspondence with current experience of COVID-19, to gauge its likely extent and effects, and how best to mitigate them. Their advice and the readiness of governments to hear it have so far largely been vindicated by their results.

The crisis has shredded many unwarranted claims to certainty. People with varying degrees of expertise who claim to a certain knowledge that discredits other judgments simply seem shrill and self-important.

The limits of the human sciences, such as economics, have also been made clear. The idea that society is best served by allowing the markets free rein has been shattered as governments have given priority to the saving of human lives over economic growth. The economy has been seen to name very important human relationships, but not the most important. It serves human wellbeing. 


'What matters now is personal truth — the coherence between words and life, the trustworthiness of those who will lead us through the dark, and their commitment to discover the scientific and the human truth of the situation we find ourselves.'


In the face of uncertainty people have placed a higher emphasis on the character and quality of judgment of their leaders than on their rhetorical skills or previous convictions. In a political world in which high rhetoric and partisan policy abounded, this change of emphasis is promising. It suggests that politicians will be judged more by what they do and by the virtues they show in doing it, than by their slogans and their ability to identify scapegoats. People have become used to politicians making decisions and explaining them with clarity and modesty. They are likely to be wary about returning to politics seen as a game or a treasury to be ransacked by the powerful.

Underlying these changes is the heightened importance of truth in all its dimensions when dealing with the unpredictable course of a dangerous illness. Truth is more than a matter of being accurate about facts. Nor is it a matter of having an all-explanatory ideology. Still less is it a matter of always being right, given that judgments and decisions need to taken on the best evidence. Hindsight will always reveal better ways.

In easy times truth can easily be identified with certainty: with what is empirically verifiable, with economic assumptions loaded with statistics, with political ideologies, and with cynicism. These certainties wash away in the face of a storm threatening life and all human activities. They will not protect us from the things that threaten our health, our solidarity as a community and our economic security.

What matters now is personal truth — the coherence between words and life, the trustworthiness of those who will lead us through the dark, and their commitment to discover the scientific and the human truth of the situation we find ourselves. It would be easy and lazy to aim at restoring the institutions and settings that prevailed year ago. To seek the good of each person within the common good in a changed world requires a steady heart and human wisdom.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Woman walking into light (Photo by Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, COVID-19, coronavirus, uncertainty, auspol



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Existing comments

Let's hope the political incumbents espouse the same sentiments you so eloquently express here, Fr Andrew, and act accordingly in the future. When it's all over, however, I suspect they will kowtow to the greed of the lobbyists and business with a view to their own benefit above all others. Human beings have always done so and have never learnt from their mistakes.

john frawley | 14 May 2020  

Thank you Andrew for this terrific article. It will be a great challenge to offer “steady as she goes” in order to embed values such as shared-responsibility in a society that puts individualism and the market first. I remember undertaking a public health pandemic simulation once and it showed very clearly that the well-resources people only became a bit more generous in sharing when thy felt they were personally at risk. We must make sure that ghettos do not emerge just to protect those who are already well-resourced.

Mary | 14 May 2020  

'People with varying degrees of expertise who claim to a certain knowledge that discredits other judgments simply seem shrill and self-important.' In more fearful and institutionalized times of my life I tried to hang on to absolute truths. Now I find impermanence as close to a truth as one can get.

Michael D. Breen | 14 May 2020  

With regard to the general principle "Truth will out!" Australia's national & state leaders, not just in politics & commerce but also in science & religion have done very well. Even our Main Stream Media, on the whole, have resisted sensationalism. Not so in the USA. Trump as POTUS has no respect for Truth. We've become used to his playing fast & loose with the facts regarding COVID19. What has troubled me is the way his views have divided the Catholic Church in USA. Conservative/Traditionalist Bishops & laypeople publicly,at least in MSM available to me on line, seem to think he can do no wrong because they see him as pro-life. They follow the Gospel of Prosperity. Progressives/Defenders of Vat2 see Trump's socio-economic policies as the antithesis of Catholic social teaching. They follow the Gospel of Conversion.

Uncle Pat | 14 May 2020  

Thank you Andrew, I totally agree with you. What worries me is the mantras that; 'we have to get from under the doona' or 'stage a return to normal' - what 'normal' ?? I fear that the pressures to get people back to work and wake up the economy are at this stage, dangerous fantasies. In the U.S. we have POTUS Trump firing medical experts who don't agree with him. That is scary stuff. Spare a thought for the millions of Filipinos forced into shelters as Typhoon Vongfong sweeps through the Visayas towards densely populated Luzon .They are trying to control the Pandemic at the same time so the 'keep your distance' rule is neigh impossible to enforce. We are so fortunate here.

Gavin O'Brien | 15 May 2020  

The truth beyond uncertainty is that if, social distancing or not, the US, Australian and fraternal nation submarine fleets aren’t doing their job, they should. And if they can, workarounds are surely possible for the civilian sector because there aren’t that many submariners around.

roy chen yee | 15 May 2020  

My guidance in these uncertain times is encapsulated in the poem by St John Henry Newman, which was later put to music and became a favourite hymn, 'The Pillar Of The Cloud'. In it he asks to be led surely on by this Light 'amid the encircling gloom'. He was absolutely certain that the Light, which had led him through the most difficult times, would still do so. He also said 'Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see/The distant scene, - one step enough for me'. I commend his vision to other readers of this piece.

Edward Fido | 21 May 2020  

Sound comment, Andrew. Thank you. Some leaders have certainly stood out in their clear, honest stating of the facts as known. Let’s hope we do expect more integrity, compassion, and genuine leadership as we face an altered world post Covid 19.

Kathryn | 21 May 2020  

For me, the most refreshing part of the last few months is the way that most, if not all, of our medical experts and even a few, though not many, of our politicians have been willing to say, up front, without pressure, things like: "We can't be certain", "We could have done better", "Our coordination wasn't as good as it should have been", or "We need your cooperation". The contrast between this openness and basic honesty of our experts and the arrogant lies, deceit and obfuscation to which we are accustomed from our politicians could surely not have been missed by even the dullest observer. But do I think this will have registered with those politicians and do I think that their behaviour will change as 'normality' is restored? Nah...

Ginger Meggs | 04 June 2020  

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