You can expend precious energy chasing the holy grail of 100% certainty, or you can choose to settle for 95%, or 70%, or even 20% certainty.
When I was a graduate student, I worked for months to prove the main mathematical result in my dissertation. I struggled with this proof. I churned out pages of chicken scratch calculations. I manipulated equations in my head while I ate, showered, vacuumed, and exercised. I had math dreams.
Finally, I thought I’d nailed it. It was a large and hairy beast that sprawled over many pages. I showed it to my adviser and declared, “I’m 95% sure it’s correct.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Well, you’d better be 100% sure,” he replied.
That’s when I realized that he wasn’t planning to check it himself. He was just going to trust me. And then I started to worry. What if there was an error in my proof? What if the central result in my dissertation turned out to be wrong? Could they take away my PhD? And if I got a job based on work I’d done in my dissertation, could they fire me? Would my career be ruined?
I checked my proof carefully many times. But I still couldn’t be 100% sure it was right. I knew there could be a glitch in my logic that I simply wasn’t smart enough to pick up on, no matter how many times I checked. After all, how many times had I turned in math homework – confident that my answers were correct – only to find out later that there was a major flaw in one of my solutions? And the stakes were much higher here. I asked a classmate – someone a lot smarter than me – to check my proof, and he thought it was correct. But I knew it wasn’t his dissertation or his responsibility, so I couldn’t completely trust his assurances.
I lived in a constant state of fear as I went to job interviews and presented my dissertation work. I had moments of panic that sent me running to recheck my proof to reassure myself that everything still seemed correct. I waited on edge for these moments, fully anticipating that the next one would turn out to be the true flash of realization, the moment of terror when my brain would figure out exactly what was wrong with the logic in my proof.
I ended up getting a job as an assistant professor. And this fear continued to paralyze me for the first part of my career. I was reluctant to take on research projects because I knew I couldn’t be sure that my math or statistical analysis would be free of major errors. Having a paper accepted at a journal would trigger an avalanche of doubts about possible mistakes that I might have made.
While I could see that my anxiety was a problem, I couldn’t let go of the fact that my fear was realistic. There’s a website called Retraction Watch, which tracks academic journal articles that have been retracted, whether due to honest mistakes or fraud. It’s full of horror stories. These stories are clickbait to me. Like a rubbernecker on the freeway, I can’t turn away from the carnage. I used to spend hours reading them with a mixture of horror and fascination, trying to figure out if I could be next. And I could. In my career, I’ve written tens of thousands of lines of computer code to generate the results in my papers. I try to be careful, but sometimes I’m tired, distracted, or in a hurry. The chances are virtually zero that there are no errors anywhere in all those tens of thousands of lines. Are there any major errors that would invalidate my results? I hope not. But there could be.
That wasn’t the only fear that plagued me. Doing research requires writing grant proposals, and there are hundreds of rules and regulations to deal with each time I work on a funded project. Submitting papers to journals comes with a requirement to disclose any potential conflicts of interest. Doing research with human subjects – like surveys – opens another can of regulatory worms. Many of the rules and regulations in these situations are ambiguous. They are interpreted loosely by some and strictly by others. Like speed limits, they are not always followed to the letter in practice. I lived in terror of violating these rules. My fear drove me to read and re-read regulations to make sure I understood them and was staying within the letter of the law. I’d spend hours carefully justifying to myself why each choice I made could be defended. Again, I could not get past the fact that there was real ambiguity here. Unless I understood and followed every rule to the letter, there was no way to know that I wouldn’t cross someone else’s line of impropriety.
I’ve since learned that there’s a name for these fears – and the numerous others –that have haunted me throughout my life: obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). And thankfully, I’m slowly learning to live with them. It’s a gradual process, there are still many ups and downs, and I don’t have a magic formula. But shifting my attitude towards risk and uncertainty has helped a great deal. That attitude shift has come about through a Zen Buddhist meditation practice, through working with a terrific therapist, and through reading Jonathan Grayson’s book, Freedom from OCD.
The major sticking point for me has been that my fears are about ambiguous situations where even people who don’t suffer from anxiety disagree on how cautious to be. Some folks I’ve worked with meticulously double, triple, and quadruple check their math or computer code; others shrug their shoulders and hope for the best. Some folks are sticklers for the rules; others are more willing to blow them off. I always figured that – since these were real risks, and since my career was at stake – I had better err on the cautious side in every possible situation.
But life is full of real risks: the risk of making a career-damaging mistake in your research, the risk of getting punished for breaking a rule, the risk of ignoring a symptom of a serious illness, the risk of causing a traffic accident and hurting someone, the risk of getting robbed because you forgot to close a window. You can dedicate your life to minimizing these risks, or you can choose to take them and accept whatever consequences may come. You can expend precious energy chasing the holy grail of 100% certainty, or you can choose to settle for 95%, or 70%, or even 20% certainty. Anxiety may try to rob you of that choice. But the choice is always there. And – perhaps frighteningly – it is yours alone to make. Nobody – not your colleagues, not your dissertation adviser, not your family, not your therapist, not the government, not Google – can tell you how much risk to take in any aspect of your life.
One thing is 100% certain: we are all going to die someday. There is no escaping that fate no matter how many precautions we take, no matter how closely we follow the rules, no matter how many disasters we manage to avert. On the one hand, that’s a scary and dismal truth. On the other, it’s incredibly liberating to realize that maybe we don’t need to take our fleeting lives so seriously. Maybe it’s okay to loosen our grip, take some real risks, experiment, err on the reckless side … and muddle through any resulting catastrophes, moment by moment, with as much grace as we can muster. There’s a saying that goes, “If you’ve never missed a flight, you’re probably spending too much in airports.” That seems like a healthy attitude.
These days, I no longer let the possibility of mistakes stop me from taking on research projects or sending papers to journals. Getting a paper accepted at a journal still sends a shiver down my spine, but it has also become a genuine opportunity to celebrate. I still have nagging doubts about possible mistakes in published papers, but I know it’s a bad idea to scratch that itch. I no longer go back and check my code or my math. I choose to let bygones be bygones. If someone else finds an error, I’ll figure out how to deal with it then. In the meantime, I must sit with the uncertainty and try not to get sucked in by clickbait.
And I’m trying to limit the time I spend reading rules, to make quicker decisions about what to disclose or put on forms, and to risk not following the letter of the law. My ally on this front is the inner rebel I know I harbor. She’s the teenager who used to sneak out of the house and go to heavy metal concerts. She’s the adult who chose a career in academia because she didn’t want a boss telling her what to do. She’s the nonconformist who questions authority, challenges social norms, and stands up for civil liberties. I’m trying to encourage her.
Recently, a PhD student was telling me about the computer code he’d written to produce results for a project he was working on. “It was really complicated,” he said. “I think I did it right, but I’m not sure. How do you know it’s right?”
I was caught off guard by the question, and I can’t remember exactly what I told him. I probably came up with something reassuring.
But the real answer is that you don’t know. You can’t know. And you must learn to live with that.