Uncertainty Paradox – This word occurred as a spark. When the CoVID situation was spreading all over the world, for the first time, this word striked in me. There was curiosity to know, with in me, how did I land up with this word. I just saved this word. Left it over for more than 2 months. Whenever, I was in discussion with my clients, or read an article or with my colleagues, as they explain the situation, I happened to quote this, without much of deep knowledge on this. This led to research, as to What is Uncertainty paradox?
Uncertainty refers to the impossibility of exact predictions. This leads to a paradox. Uncertainty is always associated with two things. One is risks and the other, it’s based upon precautionary principles. Let’s first try to understand about risks. Risks actually are the calculable acts that can lead to a certain result in case of uncertainties. Risks analyzed from the point of the uncertainty generally has a controllable factor associated with it. That’s when you hear the word calculated risk. However, risk as a word evolved through history meaning danger.
Uncertainty generally refers to the inability or the impossibility to have proper predictions. Risks, rather than looking into the literal meaning of danger, in all practical scenarios is the possible negative consequences that can happen due to uncertainty. Now let’s relate this to an example. With CoVID situation, when the government announced lockdown, it immediately paved way to uncertainty. The reason being, we as humans are used to relate everything to time factor. When will the shop open? When will the school reopen? When will my education get over? When will be my final loan installment?
However, when we heard the news of government announcing the lockdown. We were worried immediately about the timeline. As not definitive timeline was announced. It gave way to uncertainty. There was no clarity as to when we will get back to work. Since, suddenly exposed to the fact of uncertainty, without a binding time factor, it led to a paradox. Each of us started to base our conclusion, upon our understanding of the uncertainty. For example, let relate to the news, that country X relaxed the lockdown after 2 months. After sever attack from the virus. Based upon this, we relate that our country has just started to test, probably we will have 3-4 months to reach such a volume. Hence, this is going to take much more time. Probably the lock down would be there for another 4-5 months. This is how uncertainty works towards a conclusion, in which none of the factors are certain. However, they seem to be so right, a kind of paradox. Hence, this raised the factor of risk.
With no clarity in place, when the lockdown was announced, we happened to see people filling their home with more than two months of supplies. Risk which needs to be analyzed as a factor of uncertainty suddenly transformed as a danger.
Businesses when they expand or change markets or launch a new category of products, they would always say calculated risk. They generally work on their business plan and probable revenue relating to expansion or new product launch or scenarios similar to this.. However, they will not be able to gauge the market, even though they do a sampling. The way market reacts after the product launch can be completely different. Hence, they say it’s a calculated risk. However, as risk in that scenario is already a calculated and controllable one. The reason is, the business entities would have planned it as a separate ship, at an arm distance from the mother ship. Incase if it sinks, they have taken all the precautionary measures. The precautionary measures that doesn’t bring down the mother ship. A risk due to the uncertainty.
I have a classic example to share. This relating to the case of Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Pepsi market share was raising. It was close to 30% in 1985. This growth led to threatening of the market leader Coca-Cola, that it might lose it’s leading position. In order to avoid losing the market share, Coca-Cola introduced something new called as New Coke. The New Coke was smoother, sweeter in taste than the regular coke.
Coca-Cola thought this shall help to control the slide in its market share. Though it was launched by sampling where during the sample test the results were good. However, upon launch, Coca-Cola realized that people didn’t like the new coke. Only 13% liked the new one. Coca-Cola fans became angry to such an extent they ran a campaign and pushed Coca-Cola to bring its old Coke. Indeed, within 77 days, Coca-Cola launched its original Coke under the name of Classic Coke.
Coca-Cola saw an uncertainty, when its market share was sliding. Hence, it took a risk the one as calculated and controllable. The calculated risk proved to be a bigger failure and it was able to control it by bringing the Classic Coke.
Though the business community calls these as precautionary measures, I feel this would have evolved from the second factor related to uncertainty, the precautionary principles. The precautionary principle pertains to uncertain risks. These risks are not, or at least not fully, calculable and controllable. The reason being he probability of occurrence or the effect in terms of damage cannot be estimated. In this kind of situation, even the potential danger and the resulting causalities may not be established. Though there are suspicions of danger. I can see, that you are visualizing the current CoViD situation and this thought seems to fit so well.
When faced with an uncertainty paradox, how can we navigate through it. For this, we need to go and understand how policies are framed. That shall give us the guidance, the tools to navigate uncertainty. For policies to be rolled out, they generally look at evidence. A policy to be framed, initially is run as a programme or scheme. Based upon the development of the programme and its impact a policy is formed. The policy considers the amounts of information and knowledge that happened during the programme development stage. Thus, evidence-based policies depend on two main factors of information – A solid evidence (information) and which is appropriate. As the policy is rolled out based upon evidence, they also at least plan to have strong administration, assessment and dissemination of policy. But in reality, very few cases succeed to this level.
Thus, an approach suggested by Anouk S. Rigterink and Mareike Schomerus, referred as authors henceforth, in their evidence-based policies is 4P’s – Proof, Plausibility, Principle and Possibility. Now let’s see, how this can help oneself in addressing the uncertainty paradox.
Proof – According to the authors, to have a fool proof knowledge one has to establish a clear distinction between something that is right and wrong. This makes a plan in reference to a time, to be right. This approach they name it as to evidence proof. Now, let’s relate this thought to uncertainty. When we face uncertainty, one of the things we can work upon is, instead of getting fearful, trying to identify evidence proof. That is the scenarios or incidents that have close relevance to the uncertainty that we currently face. History always repeats in a different form. The closer we are able to study and relate the past facts, from our own life to the historical facts, we can have a proof in hand. This helps us to build the logic of reasoning. The moment, we approach the same uncertainty with an evidence proof, relative to logic of reasoning, we can avoid the panic and fear.
Plausibility – Plausibility, as per the author’s description is not proof, but is broader than most current definitions of evidence. An argument that a policy can plausibly work may include retrospective proof from other contexts (proof that it was a right thing, done in a right way, at some other time and/or in some other place). But plausibility goes beyond this: it has to demonstrate that it is probable that the policy can work in another time and at another place.
An example can be, applying for a job interview. Let’s assume we are applying for a position for office assistant. We don’t have much experience regarding the same. One of the approach, we generally take is, discussion with friends or common connections who are working as an office assistant. We also, try to get the information through network, who might be the interviewer, what kind of questions generally they ask, etc. This clearly gives a view, that the evidence is not a direct link to us, it had happened in the past and we try to forecast the same for us. This helps us better to be prepared to face the situation.
Principle – Principles can be considered as the concepts of hope. They can be the quotes or proverbs or guidelines that we had heard multiple times. We grew with those as our light house guiding us during our tough times.
The authors covey that, the proof is useful to evaluate whether a past policy has obtained its goals. Plausibility details whether it is likely that a proposed policy will obtain its goals. However, neither tells us whether these goals were worthwhile in the first place, or how different goals should be prioritized.
A simple relevance to the principles can be seen in World War 2. When the coalition soldiers were badly hurt due to the war in the Nazi territories, most of citizens in those countries, supported the soldiers. Took care of them, medicated them and helped them to recover. This was because of underlying human emotion of empathy. A principle which had grown with us over the centuries. The same way, when we are in the mix of uncertainty, a strong statement which we say to ourselves is “This too shall pass”. A principle that had evolved over the centuries, that nothing stays forever.
Possibility – When we are in dark, surrounded with uncertainty, we have to think through options. They always say, the best options or solutions emerge in times of constraint. According to the authors, Principle might help us to have a more honest discussion of the goals. Proof and plausibility emphasize finding out what has worked somewhere, and what could plausibly work in the future.
However, principle, proof and plausibility can only show us what had worked before or what have been tried before.
Possibility, the forth option, can throw us a way to navigate. This might be all new, which was neither been adopted or an example that was not in place with anyone. As with everyone, one’s life is unique to themselves. Thus, you might find a way possible to navigate through the constraint.
An appropriate recent example is the one I would like to share here. When the CoVID lockdown was announced in India, there was a challenge within migration workers. India as you all aware, is a country of multiple states. People from one state travel to other state and work depending upon the nature of their skillset. In one case, a girl working as labor in a construction industry came under the same lockdown situation. Her mom was sick, and they couldn’t stay in the state where they were working. Because of lockdown, their existence and the fear pushed them to the brim of life.
When there was complete lockdown on travel and all necessities, she saw a possibility of going to her village. Her village is 1200km away. The possibility she saw was to ride a bicycle and reach the village along with her sick mom. Indeed, she reached cycling down 1200km. This shows her never give up attitude and at the same time, a possibility that I can reach my village by bicycle. When most of them didn’t think about the same.
Thus, during the times of uncertainty, lets us not be tied to fear. Let’s not get bowed down due to the pressure of unknown. We can choose from the above 4P’s – Proof, Plausibility, Principle and Possibility to navigate the situation. Though these are points which are used for framing policies, I believe one of the P’s or a combination of those can be that light house during the storm in the sea of life to reach our destination. A light of hope.
Probing for proof, plausibility, principle and possibility: a new approach to assessing evidence in a systematic evidence review – Development Policy Review 34 (1) – Journal articles or issues
Development Policy Review, 2016, 34 (1): 5–27