I Believe in Doubt

One of my sisters asked that each of my family members write a “This I Believe” essay, following the guidelines of the 1950s radio show. Below is the resulting essay I wrote on doubt. Perhaps one day I will also elucidate my belief in smelling the roses, or other core beliefs still buried in my subconscious.


I believe in doubt. Indeed, I am working to become a practitioner of doubt, a scientist. By this, I do not mean that I avoid placing trust in friends, that I ignore all instincts, or that I deny faith. I mean simply that I make an effort, a conscious effort, to accept little as certain.

I remember a soccer practice in second grade when someone on my team sent the ball soaring high into the air with an impressive kick. A boy some twice my age announced that the ball was “airborne.”  I was in awe. As a child, I was fascinated by the mystery of flight. How did this older boy know the ball had achieved it? Yet he was older, therefore right. The ball was airborne.

Flight so enraptured me that I constantly groped for ways to understand how it was possible. At one point, I concluded that planes must simply fly so fast as to escape the pull of gravity. I reasoned that the wings are there just to keep them flying straight. When my father gently corrected this view, my conviction was so strong I simply refused to believe him. Faster than gravity just made so much sense.

Perhaps around middle school, I read a book that said planes fly because the shape of their wings forces the air above to move faster than the air below. A scientist named Bernoulli figured out that slower air exerts more pressure, so the wing is pushed up. Eureka: lift! Things soar. How foolish of me to think a round soccer ball might fly or to imagine that anything can be faster than gravity. Here was the answer to the mystery of flight.

Ah but it turns out not to be the only answer. There are others: three, as I would later learn. All predict lift just as well, just as accurately. Not only that, an adept physicist can arrive at all three beginning only with an equation describing the random motions of the particles in a gas. These deeper, more comprehensive explanations humbled me. Even now, I will not claim to understand, absolutely, how heavy things fly.

Time and again, I have been lulled into certainty by adept orators and appealing façades. Invariably I feel the embarrassment of my foolish trust when that certainty betrays its flaws. From the lessons of flight and the countless other questions I once thought I had answered, I have come to a single conclusion: I am certain that I should never be certain.

Because of the tremendous worth I assign to doubt, I am not an outspoken person, I am seldom resolute, I am frequently anxious, and I am rarely the winner in arguments. Yet also because of this, I avoid harming others through choices made in false confidence. Furthermore, I expose myself to deeper, more beautiful truths because I am willing to admit imperfections in those to which I cling. This is why I embrace doubt.

Written October 2013