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Page last updated at 11:26 GMT, Thursday, 6 November 2008

Three little words so hard to say

Statuette of US president-elect Barack Obama in a crown
Riding a wave of trust, but would Barack Obama admit "I don't know"?

Michael Blastland
There are three words you will hardly ever hear a person in power use - "I don't know." Why is doubt, which most of us experience every day, virtually unheard of in politics, asks Michael Blastland.

Gloria Laycock was a senior civil servant in the Home Office. One evening, she says, she answered the phone to a minister's private office, asking if the crime prevention scheme, Neighbourhood Watch, worked.

"The answer is it depends."
"No, no, no, no, no, does it or doesn't it?"
"Well it really does depend because I mean..."

The conversation continued in this vein for several minutes, by which time the caller was screaming: "I don't care, just tell me does it or doesn't it?"

"So I said, 'Yes.' But I would have been shredded by a criminologist, and they'd have had a point."

Analysis: Dead Cert is on Radio 4 at 2030 GMT on Thursday 6 November and repeated on Sunday at 2130 GMT
Or catch up later with the BBC iPlayer

Doubt seems a dangerous thing in politics. If possible, you don't admit it. Not about your values, nor your analysis, nor the policies that will magically bring about the change that you are certain is needed.

One response to the economic upheaval of the past few months might be to conclude that we know far less than we think we know, and pretending otherwise is rash and damaging. Yet while economic confidence evaporates, another kind of confidence still thrives - confidence in the power of our own analysis, of who is to blame and why, the strident confidence of politicians or business people in their preferred remedies.

Wood for the trees

Is this a general, but dangerous habit - that those in public life often drift through events of which no-one is the master, all the while pretending to a false confidence, or even certainty? Are our leaders incapable of saying what all should surely now admit, that often they don't know? Perhaps the wreckage from the past is all the evidence we need, for didn't they speak with certainty then too?

Kashmir conflict
When you're actually in the smoke and the roar of the cannons, even the generals have no idea what's happening
Paul Seabright

Paul Seabright, an economist at Toulouse University, says it's a feature of all modern societies that we know little about what's going on.

"If you read Tolstoy's War and Peace, he has some wonderful descriptions about how battles which look very clear to military historians never seem that way to the people involved in them, that when you're actually in the smoke and the roar of the cannons, you have no idea what's happening. Even the generals have no idea what's happening."

Tolstoy intended these passages as a parable of society as a whole, to show there's no vantage point from which to get the big picture.

This also holds for the complicated financial systems currently under the spotlight worldwide.

"We had become a little too confident that we thought we could see the big picture, and now the big picture has come back and hit us rather hard where it hurts."

Estelle Morris
We know in our heart that it's not black and white, it's not 100% one policy and no percent another policy
Estelle Morris

Former Education Secretary Estelle Morris believes politicians are hooked on certainty - forgivable in the case of their political values, but not about the benefits of any given policy.

This distinction is easily blurred, she says. During her time in the Cabinet, she believes policies on league tables, homework, streaming and how to teach reading, were oversold. That's quite a list, though she insists these policies were not bad, just dogmatic, when the evidence for one policy rather than another was often far less clear-cut.

"That's where politicians make a huge error," she says. "Because life's not like that and people know that. We know in our heart that it's not black and white, that it's not 100% one policy and no percent another policy.

Speak in certainties

"We know that and yet we pretend with the public that it's absolutely this policy and it will deliver what we want. Politics needs to change in that respect."

But will it? Is it imaginable that a prime minister could stand up one day and say: "Look, I think this will work, and I'm going to give it a try, but frankly, I'm not sure."


Gloria Laycock suggests there is a tendency in government to demand that everything should be simple and emphatic, sometimes to the point of absurdity.

Many years ago her department worked on repeat victimisation - how just a fraction of victims account for almost half of all crime, and how protecting victims can reduce crime.

"I, in the early days, was trying to persuade a minister this was a really important public policy. He said, 'Do you know what? Repeat victimisation's got too many syllables. Can't you think of something with fewer syllables? Could we call it repeat offending?'"

No - because it isn't the same thing at all.

It's a strange world where even the complexity of words is frowned on, to the extent that a politician would rather use another even if it meant something quite different.

Children in a library
Estelle Morris admits to overselling polices such as how to teach reading
Some parts of public life also function, less noisily, with subtlety and honesty about the real dilemmas. But we tend to hear less of them than the trumpet blasts of self-assurance. Is it the public that demands certainty, craving bedtime stories to help us sleep soundly rather than face up to the rather obvious fact that the future - and to some extent the present - is unknown? Or is it the fault of journalists who would rip into any minister who confessed to being unsure?

Some years ago, the former Archbishop of York John Hapgood suggested - with one eye on the politics of the time - that the lust for certainty could be a sin.

Is it? Answers by e-mail please, in not too many syllables.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Some years ago I was working in the public services. There was an effort made to reduce the amount of information demanded by the Home Office. We met with Home Office officials and went right through the list of questions and statistics collected. On the service side we were able to dispense with a fair proportion of the information as being of no use to us. However the officials wanted to keep every item. When asked why the answer was "What if the minister asks". The proposal to tell ministers "we don't collect that information" was regarded as outrageous. So we collect vast amounts of information which is mostly useless to back up the culture of certainty... just in case the minister asks.
J Cantrell, Caernarfon Gwynedd

Politicians are not supposed to change their mind because they're supposed to be doing what the voters put then in position for. If they admit that they don't know they're not living up to expectation. If they could fall back on the voters each end every time a decision was needed then we'd have a complete democracy. Unworkable, but complete.
Peter Jones, Dolgellau, Wales

As a teacher, one of the things I tell the children in my class is that it's OK to say "I don't know". It saves the pretend thinking, and best of all, I can show that they've have learned something when they can show they understand.
RMC, Hull, UK

As adults in our everyday lives we get away with far more than we ever would have, as children in school (certainly in my school). I'm averse to saying "I don't know" but I often say "I'm not sure". Saying "I'm not sure" implies that I MIGHT know, and not that I haven't got a clue. In school, saying "I'm not sure" cuts no ice with teachers.
Stephen, London

Surely the very act of leadership requires decisiveness? And, for the decision to be trusted and thus followed, the decider has to show conviction in his choice, else risk that somebody else with greater greater apparent conviction in theirs will take the leadership from him? Funny how that contradicts a politician's innate inability to answer a perfectly straight question with a perfectly straight yes or no, however.
Bill Gribble, Gloucester, UK

What I love about my GP is that if he doesn't know something, he tells me just that. Then refers me to someone who might.
Fee Lock, Hastings, East Sussex

Doesn't just apply to politicians, either. A favourite memory of mine - as a new educational psychologist, a rather formidable head teacher asked me for advice about a boy in her school who was understandably causing her great concern. I said I didn't know, but would go away and find out if I could. She later told me how much she respected that - one of the greatest compliments I've ever been given.
Steve Chambers, London

I don't think it is necessarily only politicians that crave certainty, we all do. Our brains are not well-equipped to deal with probabilities, risk and uncertainty as Michael Blastland has explained before in his excellent articles for the Magazine. The irony is that a rejection of certainty and an acceptance of probability is required if we are to understand the complex world we now live it. Or at least I think it is...
Ben Hoyle, London

This is a cause of circular cause and effect. We elect politicians because (we hope) they know what they're doing. The politicians know that, once elected, unless they show "strength" and have clear policies, they will not gain any respect from the voters and will not be voted in again as being too weak or vacillating. Therefore it follows that if a politician can't be strong, he can't be a politician.
Anne Boyce, Halifax, England

During the recent US presidential election, McCain admitted that he was not an expert on the economy. Nobody can be an expert on everything and the role of a president is to have advisors who they listen to on advanced topics. Still, Obama's team completely hammered him on it, and probably scored quite a lot of points in the process. We might prefer honesty, but politics is a competitive business and it's not a good idea to admit weakness.
Peter Saffrey, Glasgow, UK

Might this problem also be in part caused by the demands of the media wanting certainty, and where it doesn't get it, using that as a stick to beat politicians with? All that does is create a cycle that clearly isn't virtuous.
Kevin Rye, London

"I'm not sure" is itself an all-too-popular substitute for a frank IDK here in the US. It's so hard to admit pure ignorance. As I age, however, the purity of my ignorance becomes (perhaps) a matter of pride - assertive and waffle-free. Or perhaps not.
G Connolly, West Chester, PA, US

Isn't it human nature to be afraid? This is the drive behind trying to control all of the variables in life. All you can do is make a decision based on your experiences and the latent risk factors and hope for the best. All of life is a series of decisions. Only a few people get to make the decisions that will affect the majority so let them do it bearing in mind that whatever they decide will affect those at the "bottom" of the pile the most since they are the ones with the least power.
Lorraine, Bacup, Lancashire

If any given Government was 100% correct with 100% of its policies 100% of the time, they would never be voted out of office, but they're not, so they do. QED.
Wayne Howarth, Birmingham, West Midlands

Wayne Howarth's argument should not end QED, since the argument is invalid. His argument is of the form: if A then B, not A, therefore not B. But B might be true for reasons independent of A. For example, a government could be 100% correct 100% of the time but still voted out because the population don't realise the government is correct. Or because they despise governmental arrogance.
Bob Mahoney, Oxford

While I find it commendable in day to day life when someone is brave enough to admit that they don't know the answer, providing they then agree to find out and let you know, I'm not sure this works with politicians. Would Barack Obama have achieved his historic victory if his slogan had been not "Yes We Can" but " I think we might be able to but I'm not 100% sure"?
Paula, Stowmarket, Suffolk

Your first example is NOT an example of not knowing, but of not being able to reduce a complex issue to a simple yes or no answer. Gloria Laycock presumably knew a lot about Neighbourhood Watch and understood the complexities. However, as Estelle Morris says, you cannot reduce everything to black and white facts - at least not without loosing a huge amount of detail. The problem is that people cannot deal with complex data. Once they oversimplify, they get bad results. As Einstein said: "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."
Simon Ward, Watford, UK

I agree with Hapgood that lack of humility. Rousseau's Amour Propre is damaging, as well as just unrealistic. If we all admitted what we didn't know, we'd all be a lot more likable and have a lot less arguments. However, the Neighbourhood Watch argument is just silly, sometimes it is like that. Paxman's Howard interview would have been a better example of a wriggling politician.
Ed Corke, Cambridge, UK

Although we expect the prime minister or president to know absolutely everything to validate their position in power, it is very naive and far-fetched to expect these people to know absolutely everything. If this is the case then surely the world leader should be Stephen Fry.
Paul Hume, Edinburgh

Admitting uncertainty is much like admitting error. If you've fallen into the trap of imagining *you* are important rather than *what you do* is important, it becomes very difficult to show humility. And when he or she does publicly admit error or uncertainty, they will be surprised to find that neither the world nor their job suddenly ends. To misquote the old adage, "Those most unable to admit error or uncertainty are those least suited to power".
Dom Ostrowski, Norfolk, UK

Attacking uncertainty is not just the preserve of journalists - remember Bush lambasting Kerry as a flip-flopper in the last US presidential election? Politicians do it to themselves too. Sticking to principles or policies in the face of a challenge is an important skill to have, but so is the ability to reflect and adjust. Nothing great is ever achieved without taking risks, but the flip-side of that is that sometimes things go wrong. The wise man would say "we tried this, and it didn't work, so we'll stop doing it and try this instead".
Tom Handysides, Streatham, London

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