Three days ago, in an article discussing their certainty that Hillary Clinton LAW ’63 would win the election, the Princeton Election Consortium confidently wondered, “Is 99 percent a reasonable probability?” In retrospect, the answer seems clear: no.
This election has inspired a range of emotions, but last night, one emotion prevailed: shock. Almost every poll suggested that Clinton was ahead nationwide. But by 9 p.m., those confident predictions faltered.
Nothing is certain, whether we know it or not. So why are we so increasingly eager to display certainty in an uncertain world? Why are we so eager to believe in and commit to our opinions, or at least to “signal boost” them? Crucially, is this faux-certainty making our world worse?
In many ways, “Black Mirror” is the timeliest television series of our era. It examines a variety of dystopian near-futures, some of which are seemingly no further away than Trump’s presidency when it begins on Jan. 20. At least two of these futures are highly critical of the way we share our experiences and thoughts online. Our feeds are full of fraudulent news articles targeted at us on Facebook, campaign-funded comments on Reddit and viral advertising pieces masquerading as objective analysis.
To make matter worse, such content is ubiquitous. It is rapidly becoming impossible to distinguish sponsored material from real news and independent research, especially when people casually “share” or “repost” articles. In exaggerating our certainty, we lose the ability to distinguish between off-the-cuff beliefs and more substantive ones, in both our speech and that of others.
Several of my Facebook friends tagged themselves at Standing Rock and wrote as part of an explanation post: “Don’t clarify on your check in, message friends who say ‘stay safe!’ to let them know what’s up — the stay safe posts are more convincing / confusing for police.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with promoting a cause on Facebook; #NoDAPL may even be a particularly worthwhile one. But there is a suggestion of expertise in the specificity of this instruction which, in hindsight, is obviously flawed. (The police, as it turned out, were not monitoring Facebook feeds at all.)
If we think a source is reliable, it must never be certain of something that turns out to be wrong. FiveThirtyEight was famously embarrassed when it incorrectly claimed that Trump had close to no chance of winning the Republican nomination. This is a principle that elites must understand: If our certainty is frequently misplaced, our credibility diminishes. The problem with our elite sensibilities is that it is frequently unjustified; too often, we are plainly wrong.
Professing certainty makes us all less approachable, less sensitive to new information and less capable of interpreting the world around us. This is a real loss. Conversations are not lectures; people who are usually explaining things rather than discussing them are missing the point of most human interaction.
We are also missing out on a lot of data points; almost all of us believed the polls that predicted a Clinton victory, dismissing the possibility of a Trump presidency. Being so self-assured, or even just pretending to be, prevented us from understanding the other. Yesterday, an overwhelming number of Americans went to the polls and voted for Trump. Most of us do not even understand their motivations. In this new normal, ignoring Trump voters — who carried last night’s election — is not a feasible path forward.
Our country will survive a Trump presidency. But our eagerness to shut ourselves off to radically different ideas — to be certain in even our least sophisticated views — must go. This is as much a plea to Trump zealots as it is to Yale experts; large subsets of each group seem eager not to understand or empathize with the other half of this country.
Talk less, listen more. Give each other the benefit of the doubt. Try not to condescendingly explain or dismiss new ideas, no matter how confident you are about your opinions. If this election has shown us anything, it’s that we are usually wrong to be certain.
Now more than ever, our country needs to move forward with humility.
Eliot Levmore is a junior in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .