The Chance vs. Certainty Conundrum

The fickle seduction of chance vs the vain certainty of science.

These polar viewpoints are illustrated in the 16th century woodcut depicted below and described eloquently by Gerd Gigerenzer in his book, Risk Savvy.

Certainty Is an Illusion
Fortuna (left) sits with her spinning wheel of chance opposed to Sapienta (right) vainly staring into the mirror of certainty. Source: Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions

Fortuna, the blind folded goddess holds the spinning wheel of chance. Her eyes, covered as luck drives the outcome and one man rises on the wheel and the other falls. 

Sapienta gazes upon herself in a mirror designed with icons of the cosmos. She represents the certainty hubris of scientific determinism. She looks down on Fortuna as primitive and careless. Fortuna ignores the existence of Sapienta, caught in the thrill of the spinning wheel. 

This piece was created a century before the probabilistic revolution, One of the greatest mile markers in our societies collective problem solving journey. Probability added a goddess who could tend to the middle ground. A rational center removing the blind fold of chance from Fortuna and shining the true reflection of uncertainty back at Sapienta. 

We continue to wrestle with this polarity. Uncertainty is uncomfortable and can drive us to align with one of these two goddesses. It easier to throw up your hands and give away control to fate. To take a nihilistic renouncement of responsibility. It’s easy as well to cling to the “knowns”. To take the “you can pry the p values from my cold dead hands” approach. 

Failure to wade in the middle leaves us vulnerable to bad decision making. Good decision making requires putting down the mirror and removing the blindfold. It requires the knowledge to define the knowns variables and the humility to highlight the unknowns.

To wade in the turning tides of uncertainty.


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