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The paradox of confidence

People sometimes use language to signal what they want to be true rather than what is true.

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Have you ever noticed that the more certain you are of something, the fewer words it takes to say it? And conversely, the more you have to insist on your confidence of something or in someone, the more you call that confidence into question?

So it was the other day when I heard news that a young Boy Scout named Michael Auberry had gone missing while on a camping trip in western North Carolina. (It may take a village to raise a child, but in the 24-hour news cycle, it can take an entire nation to worry about one who is lost.)

As the search was going into its third night, a National Park Service spokeswoman said, "We're still confident that this is a search-and-rescue operation," delicately deflecting the question of the boy's survival.

In the next report I heard, she was "confident" the lad had been found. If he has been found, I wondered, why not just say, "We've got him"? At that point, "We're confident we've got him" didn't inspire the same confidence as the simpler utterance would have done.

I didn't really relax until more details came out, including word that the boy was dehydrated but otherwise in good condition. And the spokeswoman's announcement at the end was simply, "We have our missing Boy Scout."

The principle here is that people sometimes use language to signal what they want to be true rather than what is true. Oh, the paradox of such "confidence"! To have to articulate it at all is to call into question whatever it is you are confident of.

A woman fishing for her keys at the bottom of a capacious bag insists to herself, "I know they're in here somewhere. I'm sure I picked them up off the kitchen counter as I was heading out...." Once they're actually located, of course, the dialogue-with-self becomes simpler. "Oh, here they are."

On the same day that rescuers were locating the missing scout in the North Carolina mountains, another sort of rescue operation was under way in Washington.


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