Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder Of Being Unsure

Maggie Jackson

Prometheus Books 2023


Not often do we find a book that raises numerous questions about the value of not knowing, and how our brains affect our decisions when we are uncertain. Maggie Jackson does exactly that in, “Uncertain—The Wisdom of Wonder of Being Unsure.”

From extensive interviews with scientists and researchers, and her own investigations, Jackson sheds light on how admitting uncertainty can result in new discoveries.

The brain makes poor decisions when it fails to imagine other outcomes, derailing a wealth of knowledge, she says. She cites examples to prove her thesis: “Swaggering technocrats helped send Challenger and Columbia astronauts to their death in the sky, failed to save the disadvantaged from Katrina’s wrath, and poisoned the children of Flint.” Some experienced surgeons also have a higher death rate after operations than a new surgeon. “Accumulated knowledge is no guarantee of superior performance,” she writes, adding, “the expert mind” is oriented toward a speedy solution and often fails to consider other paths.

Her work includes chapters of how the brain functions. Stress, she writes, is not something to fear. Stress can result in a reappraisal of a situation allowing for a more perceptive and effective solution. The same can be said for “daydreaming,” which allows the “resting mind” to wander, which leads to discovery. She quotes Einstein, a devout daydreamer, who said, ”imagination is more important that knowledge.”

One piece of research she includes was conducted in Hobbs, New Mexico, where “even in a good year, 1/5 of local kids are food insecure.” It’s in a chapter entitled “Life on the Edge,” where brains of children raised in poverty were analyzed. Not surprisingly, the study confirmed “the roots of poverty often have a toxic impact on young minds.” Children sought “immediate rewards” but failed to reflect on or consider other options and their brains failed to build habits for pausing, thinking and considering the uncertain. The study prompted funding for a “Ready4 Routines” program that shows progress by aiding students to be more reflective.

Jackson’s provocative research dares challenge readers from the outset to not jump to quick conclusions but rather ponder the unexpected. With today’s conflicts, artificial intelligence, and other uncertainties in the world, her book could be an essential guide. The “gadfly of the mind, is jolting us from complacency—if we are willing to answer its call,” she writes.