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Behind the Headlines Uncertainty facing us all in “unprecedented” times

8 October 2020 - When it comes to uncertainty, there is no shortage of inspiration in quotes such as Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”, and Benjamin Franklin’s eminent observation on the only certainty in this world being “death and taxes”, as quoted by Professor Eve Patten, director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, in opening the popular online Behind the Headlines discussion series this week for another academic year.

Speaking as part of “The Age of Uncertainty” panel Professor Siobhán Garrigan, head of Trinity’s School of Religion, suggested that “Christianity offers a wealth of resources for how to cope with uncertainty…and a few for how not to cope with it.” The Loyola Chair of Theology said that uncertainty can arouse feelings of “panic and vulnerability” and that “tendencies to control, proscribe or judge others are common human responses” in these situations.  

The way church authorities have tried to control this uncertainty in the past, Professor Garrigan continued, has inflicted profound harm. Other Christian theologies have long taught that certainty is always an illusion – that the very nature of life is uncertainty. Professor Garrigan argued that for most of Christianity’s history, ritual practices have been central to helping people tolerate and even “embrace uncertainty”, particularly grassroots Christian practices such as contemplation of the cross, prayer and acts of service.  

Professor Kenneth Pearce, head of Trinity’s Department of Philosophy, also spoke about “claims to certainty in religion”, which the philosopher John Locke, in his advocacy for religious toleration, blamed for “the foundation of religious persecution.”  


Locke also believed that we should embrace uncertainty, and Professor Pearce argued that Locke’s account of religious freedom continues to be enormously influential in Western Europe and North American today.  “Embracing uncertainty is about trying to believe as reasonably as we can” and “constantly trying to improve our beliefs.” Professor Pearce explained that “the Age of Uncertainty might be said to begin with the rediscovery of ancient Greek scepticism in the Renaissance period," and in the argument that “wherever there’s evidence there’s counterevidence.” 

According to neuroscientist Professor Mani Ramaswami, “the reason we are certain about specific things is because of our past experience…and because of what brains do with that experience.” The Professor of Neurogenetics and Director of Trinity Institute of Neurosciences (TCIN) said that our brains “record memories of past events” and use them to predict the future.  

When observing a bird, he noted, the brain extracts key features and creates a category in our memory which allows us to generalise about other birds. This, he said, is called “schematic memory.” “The schema are very useful, because they allow you to generalise and predict and understand things you’ve never seen before.” However, he cautioned that “schema activation can also result in false memories”, creating problems in the recognition of “detail and the truth”, which ultimately influence our perception.  


Interestingly, Professor Ramaswami, argued that when humans are in a state of attentiveness and creativity, “our schema activation can be supressed” and our “perceptions and reasoning are now more accurate” and less constrained by “rules and by past knowledge.” 

Distinguished journalist and TCD alumna Carmel Crimmins spoke of the challenges of producing news in this age of uncertainty and in the midst of arguably “the biggest story we’ve had since the Second World War”. As Financial Desk Deputy Editor at Reuters news agency, she said that “as journalists we’ve always had to deal with uncertainty”, but that these were “unprecedented times. “We’re heading into a US election, where we’ve got a global pandemic raging, we have a president who has got an infectious disease and also has not committed to a peaceful transition of power.” 

She explained that although journalists have a long history of dealing with propaganda and misinformation, the Covid-19 virus has amplified the problems of fake news and rumour.  

As the world’s largest international news agency, Reuters has over 2,500 journalists in 200 locations around the world, many of whom are now working from home, and “operationally everything has been turned on its head”, Ms Crimmins said. Many journalists have experience in working in war zones and on natural disastersshe continued, but with this pandemic “the danger is everywhere…it’s invisible.”


The Behind the Headlines series continues on the 29th of October at 7pm, with a special pre-US election panel discussion asking: ‘Is there Still an American Dream?’ Booking details will be announced on the Trinity Long Room Hub website: 

The Trinity Long Room Hub’s ‘Behind the Headlines’ discussion series draws on the expertise of distinguished panel contributors to explore contemporary issues in the broad contexts of Arts and Humanities research. Introduced in 2015, the series provides a forum for public understanding and creates a valuable space for informed and respectful public discourse. View all our previoius discussions here.

The Trinity Long Room Hub Behind the Headlines series is supported by the John Pollard Foundation.

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