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Taming Uncertainty

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You’ve heard the old Benjamin Franklin quote that nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.

But there is actually quite a lot that’s uncertain about both death and taxes. And about everything else.

Uncertainty is the human condition, according to a new book By Ralph Hertwig, Timothy J. Pleskac and Thorsten Pachur. The book is called Taming Uncertainty and it looks at the ways that we humans manage uncertainty and make choices even in the face of unpredictable outcomes.

There are few different categories of uncertainty, Timothy Pleskac (pronounced “pless-scotch”) told Living Lab Radio.

  • Strategic uncertainty. The type of uncertainty when you don’t know how people are going to act.

  • Environmental uncertainty. The pure uncertainty about how events are going to happen in the world, from the weather to earthquakes.

  • Epistemic uncertainty. Your lack of knowledge about a particular domain. Which is farther north, New York or Rome?

One strategy that people use is a “heuristic,” or mental shortcut, which doesn't always give us the right answer, but often gives us a good answer. It’s a rule of thumb.

“One of the ones we talk about in the book is a risk-reward heuristic,” Pleskac said.

We also form our own beliefs after exploring our world or after consulting friends, Pleskac said.

“We want to put out the argument that the mind has been quite successful and has a nice repertoire of tools,” he said.

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Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.