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There has been much written, discussed, and argued about uncertainty, and in recent weeks this typically academic topic has taken a completely different spin as uncertainty over the university has arisen.  The opinions voiced are often emphatic, absolute, accusatory, and demanding, leaving individuals little room to maneuver.  At the same time the discourse between individuals equally seems non-convergent, but is rather an ongoing (and healthy) wrestling with competing big-picture issues that none of us fully comprehend.  I am hesitant to use this forum to add additional complexity to the debate, even though I have opinions.  Rather, I am struck by how deeply this impacts individuals.

Uncertainty is often embodied in the simple concept of a flipped coin, and like the proverbial coin, there are two faces to how we experience uncertainty.

On the one hand, as academics we are familiar with the formal characterizations of uncertainty; standard deviation, spread, range, probability distribution functions, confidence intervals, etc. We speak easily of uncertainty’s impact on decisions, how it affects our interpretation of data, and whether the results are rendered uninterpretable. We can even get academically emotional about uncertainty; irritated, frustrated, perplexed … all safe and often productive emotional responses … and we will be forceful with others on how the uncertainty affects their responsible adoption of our research outputs.

The other side of uncertainty can be fear inducing; it’s the side where I have internalized the meaning of consequences – where the outcomes of A versus B impact my life and those aspects I care about very personally. Academics are typically not very good at comprehending this worry-side of uncertainty in relation to their research. Yet, for the user who adopts our research outcomes, and who instigates actions that carry significant real-world consequences (e.g. do I implement water restrictions because of a seasonal forecast; what happens if I forbid low cost housing development in such-and-such an area because of potential climate change; will I be (re-)elected if I advocate for an adaptation response to uncertain climate projections) – such a person knows the angst of the other face of uncertainty: the face where “I’m on the receiving end of the consequences”.

The #feesmustfall developments brings this latter facet of uncertainty right inside the ivory tower. Questions such as “Will the university fail?”, “Can I go to work today?”, “What happens if protesters force me out my office”, and even (hopefully) questions such as “What happens if I engage in the protest issues?”: these are all questions of uncertainty about the future that can be fear instilling.

Uncertainty, however, is always set against a backdrop of (probable) certainty (barring the unknown intervening).  We don’t know which way the coin will fall, but it will always fall down (do I care?).  We’re not sure of the temperature of the planet in 2050, but it will be warmer (and even though I’ll probably be dead by then, I do think its a problem).  We are unclear about what South African higher education will look like in 2-years time, but in all likelihood there will still be higher education in 2-years time (and I worry over what my role in that will be).  The intersection of the two faces of uncertainty reflect a spectrum of emotional investment.  Yet in all cases the starting point to move forward is to go back to “so what do I know?”

I know the world is warming because the overwhelming weight of evidence indicates this, and from that understanding alone I can construct a decision space that can take me forward.  Likewise with #feesmustfall, history suggests that it would require all-out-war or its equivalent to close down higher education (and even then not necessarily, as seen in WWII), and so the overwhelming weight of evidence suggests I can count on the university continuing to function (albeit with hiccups).  Like global temperature rise, this gives me a functional decision space to move forward.

The real question, as with all decisions under uncertainty, is about my personal motivations: that is, the endless tightrope walk that balances necessary self-interest with altruistic other-interest.  For the scientist’s work it’s the balance of chasing accolades of citations or new funding awards, engaging in developing knowledge value for society, or something else.  With #feesmustfall, I hesitate to suggest what the individual’s response options, motivations, and objectives might be, as these are highly personal.  But it bears repeating that there are certainties to frame our choices.

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