Uncertainty, Ambiguity, and the ‘Human’ in ‘Humanities’

“Humanists ‘have known there is no right answer for hundreds of years,’ and they are comfortable with that.”

(David Blei, cited in Mackenzie 2013)

A few days ago, in my Future of Work seminar, all of us made a human bar chart which I titled in my notes ’30 Average Uni Students’ Level of Tolerance of Ambiguity’.

Later, I added a line about where I was among those 30—the highest end of the tolerance spectrum, along with another friend. I scored 30 (the median was about 55-60) on the Tolerance of Ambiguity Scale, a psychometric testing instrument of which the design alone seems to be another embedded test for a person’s patience towards confusing instructions. One is supposed to reverse the score they get for even-numbered questions, and the higher the final result, the less tolerant they are of uncertainty and change.

uncertainty.png
(Image: Sadlier 2017)

After all the units in the bar chart had scattered and been seated again, our instructor/teacher made a point of reminding us that this measurement should not be treated as an overall indicator; rather, it reflects the temporary level of comfort of a person when faced with ambiguity in relation to their circumstances at that moment—trauma from drastic changes or overload of vagueness might evoke a loathing for uncertainty.

And those were wise words. I had travelled the entire spectrum within more than a year by then; had I taken the test around April 2017, I would have stood all the way at the other end of that bar chart. It had been half a year of rejected job and extracurricular applications, several mediocre marks for works which I was passionate about, and severe self-esteem issues. Shattered expectations, all around. During that stressful and demoralising period, I was rapidly losing self-confidence and any passion for the humanities field that I was—and fortunately still am—in.

Above all, I had been bothered by the uncertainty of my professional future in the field I had chosen, a conclusion made from the constant vagueness of assignment rubrics and the (then) scattering nature of topics covered. I went so far as even to contemplate changing my degree over to one in STEM, all motivation wrung dry by mean-spirited online pro-STEM banters (this article was, in fact, the last straw). After all, technological innovation is praised as the stem on which the future might flourish.

***

“[It is] a vague new world, with many shades of grey—a disorienting, but exciting, place.”

(Mackenzie 2013)

Uncertainty and ambiguity are intrinsic to the humanities. There is rarely the binary of true vs. false (Mackenzie 2013) since those of us in the humanities should not be looking for definitive, conclusive answer. Our research should be exploratory, offer perspectives, teach us to handle the “common uncertainty of the human condition” (Celis 2018).

“There’s nothing quite like it, and you have to experience it to know what it’s like. Can you explain what romantic jealousy is to even a precocious 7-year-old so he or she will really get it?”

(Davies 2015)

Even if write-ups of findings in the humanities can sometimes be obscure—“abstruse writing”, as some criticise them—this is often purposefully done to communicate impressions and mental states that cannot transcend rigid scientific language (Davies 2015). The field itself is “purposely unstructured” (Berridge 2017), for the human in humanities is the essence of utmost uncertainty and ambiguity, and it is beautifully diverse also because of those qualities.

bcm313 ambiguity
The humanities require us to face ambiguity, not to fight back, but to see the beauty of it. (My illustration)

Although the current trend is to push STEM extremely hard onto the education system worldwide, STEM should not be valued any more than the humanities, said Berridge (2017) in his talk, Why tech needs the humanities, at TED@IBM. The humanities, with all its obscurity, vagueness, and uncertainty are what would help us to work together as humans. Humans whose nature is part ambiguity.

In another TED Talk, Goldbloom did confirm that there are jobs that we might lose to machines, fields where STEM advancement thrives—repetitive, adequate input-based tasks (you can check here to see how likely is your dream job to be replaced). But we humans have something that machines do not: the ability to connect ambiguous threads to solve previously unencountered problems. The tolerance of ambiguity and appreciation for the novel are innate to us.

***

It was a cloudy afternoon after a discussion in which I could barely speak a word, in May 2017, and I called my Mum, eyes starting to well up. After a long comfort-talk (which I recorded here),

“I started to recall the times I was good at doing those things I hated even when I had to force myself so freaking hard not to run and hide, times I proved myself worthy of recognition, times I was patient and brave. That’s how I knew I’d made the right decision and that past week was just a bound-to-happen bump on the road, because after all, nothing worth having comes easy.”

I was unknowingly doing the small step exercise that we now practice in this subject, connecting the dots backwards, to make sense of the ambiguous. I thought of all the lecturers and tutors and writers and researchers who had inspired me without any fancy charts and graphs, only with poignant stories and very human narratives.

And on that day I moved a bit further towards that higher end of the Ambiguity Tolerance spectrum.

Mia (Minh-Anh)


References

  1. Berridge, E 2017, Why tech needs the humanities, TED Talk, December, TED.com, viewed 26 August 2018, <https://www.ted.com/talks/eric_berridge_why_tech_needs_the_humanities>.
  2. Celis, NK 2018, ‘How can the humanities help us cope with uncertainty?’, Aleteia, 5 April, viewed 26 August 2018, <https://aleteia.org/2018/04/05/how-can-the-humanities-help-us-cope-with-uncertainty/>.
  3. Davies, J 2015, ‘How Science Can Learn From Writing That Is “Not Even Wrong”’, Nautilus, 25 May, viewed 26 August 2018, <http://nautil.us/blog/how-science-can-learn-from-writing-that-is-not-even-wrong>.
  4. Goldbloom, A 2016, The jobs we’ll lose to machine—and the ones we won’t, TED Talk, February, TED.com, viewed 27 August 2018, <https://www.ted.com/talks/anthony_goldbloom_the_jobs_we_ll_lose_to_machines_and_the_ones_we_won_t>.
  5. Mackenzie, D 2013, ‘Literature by the Numbers’, Nautilus, 10 October, viewed 26 August 2018, <http://nautil.us/issue/6/secret-codes/literature-by-the-numbers>.

 

Image

Sadlier, H 2017, Uncertainty and Ambiguity, digital illustration, Medium, 28 May, viewed 29 August 2018, <https://medium.com/@heathsplosion/tackling-assumption-monsters-by-embracing-ambiguity-and-curiosity-b1831e2dd51d>.

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