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In praise of uncertainty

The Internet—you know, the electronic news media, the blogosphere, the realm of reader comments—is an arena of shouted certainties. Any assertion, no matter how preposterous, can be made, repeated, circulated, and amplified.

I came across a site this week that urged Congress to allow the nation to default on its debt and provoke a depression so as to deprive the president of re-election. At the same time, a group on the left is withdrawing its support of the president, as if it had anywhere else to go. The birthers appear to be somewhat subdued but have not gone away. The vaccines-cause-autism cranks are in full cry. In my own little corner of language and usage, Language Log has exposed the imbecility of a British article disparaging what the author supposes to be Americanisms—not that exposure to the light is apt to stop him.

Certainties, I suspect, may do us in. I prefer the attitude expressed in a Frank Conroy essay, “Think About It”:

“Indeed, in our intellectual lives, our creative lives, it is perhaps those problems that will never resolve that rightly claim the lion’s share of our energies. The physical body exists in a constant state of tension as it maintains homeostasis, and so too does the active mind embrace the tension of never being certain, never being absolutely sure, never being done, as it engages the world. That is our special fate, our inexpressibly valuable condition.”

Near to it in my commonplace book is a line from C.P. Snow’s The Masters, about the qualities looked for in the master of a college: “I want a man who knows something about himself. And is appalled. And has to forgive himself to get along.”

So too should you.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:41 PM | | Comments (1)


I just finished reading "In the Garden of Beasts" by Erik Larson, about the American ambassador to Germany after Hitler's accession in 1933. If anyone subscribed to certainties, the Nazis did. Unfortunately, their ilk are still with us in many guises.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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