Certain Death

Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the US election, 2020 has given us a lot of food for thought. I think it has shown us the power of certainty, and maybe even moreso the power of the need for certainty, as a force in our lives.

We’re not living in an era with a high tolerance for ambiguity.

Public health experts have told us to wear masks, to practice social distancing, and so on. And, if we were all holed up in our houses for a couple of months and didn’t go anywhere, then the pandemic would burn itself out for lack of transmission. Instead, though, people are taking varying levels of risks, whether by choice, compulsion, or necessity. Working from home or working at the site of a job, sending children to daycare or not, to school or not, using public transport or not, eating in restaurants or not, seeing people outside your household or not — all of these shape our opportunities to be exposed to an infectious dose of the virus. And against this varying range of risks, we stack up wearing a mask or not wearing a mask, socially distancing or not socially distancing.

The data shows that wearing a mask is helpful at reducing transmission, and when everyone wears a mask, transmission can be reduced drastically. Social distancing reinforces this effectiveness. Unfortunately, there is a probabilistic element to the efficacy of these measures; some transmission still happens, most (but not all) of it in cases where these recommendations are not being adhered to, or are simply not able to be adhered to. And because people are running various risks, and practicing various safety measures, there is inevitably going to arise that deadly datum: The Anecdote.

Yes, on balance masks are effective, and on balance most transmission can be suppressed with proper safety measures. But that’s not 100% certainty, is it? “Most” transmission is not “all” transmission. There’s always someone who caught the virus anyway, or someone who knows someone — not to mention the long-running dispute over whether the purpose of wearing a mask is to protect oneself, to protect others, or both. So, someone wore a mask, or they know someone who wore a mask, and they caught the virus anyway, and now they tell all their friends and family that masks don’t work. And word spreads, the anecdote spreads, and a truth with only a little ambiguity — that masks and safety measures are highly effective at reducing the risk, to the point that very few people would be expected to be exposed to an infectious dose if the measures were rigorously followed — becomes a perverse, false certainty — namely, that masks don’t work.

It’s the same with the current US partisan political divide. Rather than a single shared reality, we are embroiled in an epistemic collapse where facts, rules of rational discourse, and evidentiary standards themselves are contested. There now exist tribal information bubbles built on foundations of absolute certainty in their priors, bubbles between which it would seem that actual discourse is scarcely possible. We cannot tolerate the ambiguity involved with negotiating a shared reality, and so we fortify ourselves in mutually exclusive realities girded with moats of righteous certainty.

I find myself wondering why ambiguity is so hard for so many of us to tolerate. Why is it so hard to accept that mask-wearing and social distancing are the best available options, and highly likely to be effective, but that some people are still going to be infected while the process of suppressing the pandemic unfolds? Why so hard to accept the stakes of others in negotiating the terms of a shared reality, instead of walling them off in epistemic self-exile? After all, the entire structure of democratic self-government is geared towards legitimizing the idea of ceding control when your side loses, of acquiescing to allow contrary opinions to shape the trajectory of society and of our socially-mediated shared reality.

I think it comes down to control.

Control is an appealing shortcut to security, and people want to feel secure. I referred in a post not long ago to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and it’s right there near the bottom of the pyramid; beyond the absolute physiological bare minimum of survival, everything else rests on a foundation of safety.

User:Factoryjoe, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But there’s more to it than the desire for control alone. I think it also matters who is in control. Not everyone seeking the security of control wants the control for themselves, so much as they just want to know that someone they trust is in control.

One could be forgiven for speculating about the extent to which such a motivation lies at the heart of much theistic belief, including not only the mere fact of belief in God, but also the specific attributes ascribed to God. People who would feel reassured by a controlling deity are presumably more likely to prefer believing in such a one.

So we have the question of certainty vs. uncertainty, and we have the question of who exactly is in control. I wonder what a preference for certainty would imply, given people with different loci of control.

People who tend more towards an internal locus of control believe they can decisively affect the outcomes of their own actions. With knowledge, effort, preparation, they can apply hard work in the expectation of success. Success is of course never guaranteed, but they believe they can make it more likely by their efforts; they can do everything they can do; they can “leave it all on the field”. And, they believe, a reasonable amount of the time, good things will likely happen as a result.

People who tend more towards an external locus of control believe that circumstances beyond their influence or ken are what decisively affect the outcomes of their actions. Be it luck, misfortune, or sheer random chance, the malign influence of a well-placed enemy or the timely intervention of a powerful friend, the factors that will work for or against you are outside your control, unstable, uncertain.


As it happens, we have the two dimensions we need for a Punnet Square.

Internal Locus of ControlExternal Locus of Control
CertainI know what to do.Someone knows what to do.
UncertainI can figure out what to do.Maybe no one knows what to do.
Different responses to certainty or the lack of it.

When I look at that Punnet Square, I see that in circumstances of certainty, a person with an internal locus of control feels confident: They know what to do. In circumstances of uncertainty, they do not know what to do — but by virtue of their internal locus of control, they feel confident that they can do something. They may need to learn something new, they may need to make extensive preparations, and they may expend monumental effort, but just give them time. They can make a plan.

With a more external locus of control, a person’s confidence would appear to be more precarious. In circumstances of relative certainty, things can be fine: Sure, life is full of mishaps, but you know the rules and you follow them, and hopefully whoever is in charge knows what they’re doing, and you do the best you can. You keep your expectations realistic. Who knows, at the end of the day maybe you even reassure yourself that “God is in control”.

In circumstances of relative uncertainty, though, a person with an external locus of control would seem to have a real problem on their hands. Now they don’t know the rules, so they can’t follow them. Whoever is in charge probably doesn’t know what they’re doing. What does it even mean to “do the best you can”? What expectations even count as “realistic”? Life is random, power is random, success is random, and you’re going to be doing really well just not getting screwed. If God is in control, God must be asleep at the wheel or totally unconcerned.

The bottom right corner of that Punnet Square is a very difficult place to feel secure.

And here’s the thing. It is really, really hard to go from a more external locus of control to a more internal one. If it were easy, there would be a lot fewer books for sale on personal empowerment.

Ah, but going from uncertainty to certainty … that can be as simple as belief.

So, I submit that anyone facing the combination of severe uncertainty and an external locus of control is going to feel compelled to get to certainty. That’s the fortress they can flee to for safety from whatever is threatening. How much better it would be, to feel that someone knows what to do, that someone is in control, be it the experts, the debunkers, your favorite politician, or God.

The interesting thing about this is that it looks like you can predict who a person will want to believe is in control based on what they’re afraid of, and the motivated reasoning their fear can bring into play.

For instance: It’s all well and good to trust the public health experts when you’re mostly afraid of the virus, but what if your besetting fear is creeping socialism? If fear makes you distrust the government experts themselves, your path to comforting certainty may run through denialism, “life must go on” stoicism, or even a conspiracy theory.

Likewise, it’s all well and good to trust the election administrators when you’re afraid of fascism, but what if your besetting fear is civil disorder and what you think of as a violent, anarchist, secular mob of leftists that you’re sure will be coming for you given half a chance? In that case I’m not surprised if the comfort of certainty comes in trusting a “thin blue line”, and believing that the election was stolen.

There’s a lot of ambiguity to deal with in parsing a complex, and necessarily shared, reality. Masks work, and some people still get sick. Vaccines work, and some people still have scary side effects. You work hard and still get screwed out of a job, a mortgage, health insurance. Half the country votes like you, and the other half votes for your worst nightmare.

We flee into our fortresses of certainty — that masks don’t work, that vaccines don’t work, that government programs don’t or can’t work, that the other half of the country is going to bring about the apocalypse and they know it, those low-down dirty bastards — because under these circumstances, it’s the closest thing we can find to a feeling of security.

At least, we think, I can be among people who know the same truth as I do. At least we can man these barricades together as we huddle and wait for the end.

Certainly, no one wants to die alone.

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