The Virtues of Cultivated Doubt

“Why are you standing there, intentionally antagonizing my dog?”

The person addressing me and my wife with this rather perverse question was a neighbor I’ve never met (a medical doctor of some sort, I’m told) who lives catty-corner from us in a large, beautifully restored Queen Anne. It was about 9 PM on a cold winter night; the good doctor—whom I could see only in miniature silhouette from across the street—had stepped out on his porch when his two little dogs began barking at my Saint Bernard puppy. 

Now, our puppy Marlo was five months old at the time, a smooshy-faced living plush toy for whom aggressive barking could be downright terrifying. Every night at about the same time, my wife Barbara and I would walk Marlo to coax from him that all-important final poop of the day. Dog owners will agree that the aforementioned bowel movement is important because, if a puppy doesn’t go to bed feeling nice and empty, he’s likely to feel the urge at, say, 2 AM. Such wake-up calls are non-starters for dog owners in their sixties.

In any case, we tended to take the same route on these evening walks, because dogs have their favorite places to poop, and these excursions were all about expediency. Over the previous week or so, we’d observed that the unnamed doctor and his wife owned two little dogs—maybe Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, or a similar breed—that charged the fence whenever we came within a hundred feet of them. And then they’d yap—really loudly—until we passed out of sight. Each time this happened, little Marlo would freeze in astonishment, and we’d have to urge him along by offering treats. I liked to imagine him thinking, What’s the deal with these little dickheads? But in truth, I think he was scared.

On the night in question, the two yappers charged the fence as usual, at which point Marlo froze. As I dug out a doggie treat to get him moving again, Barbara waited behind me on the sidewalk, poop bag in hand. 

That’s when the doctor burst on the scene and shouted across the street, “Excuse me, why are you standing there?”

Surprised to be asked such a question two houses away from my own, I replied, “I’m walking my dog.”

“I can see that,” the man replied, obviously disgusted by the simplicity of my response. “I see you walking here all the time. It looks like you’re using my dogs to train your puppy.”

Now Barbara (who never backs away from a good fight) stepped forward, and I could tell she was loaded for bear. Lucky for the doctor, I spoke first, pointing out that we lived right over there and that it was to be expected he’d see us fairly often. That’s how dog walks work.

That’s when he accused us of intentionally antagonizing his dogs.

I still get a kick out of his word choice. Antagonizing.

Had I been on my game, I would have said something like, Okay, I admit it. I love to go out on a bitterly cold night and lurk around your house just to piss off your two rugrats. But this guy caught me so off-guard that I sputtered, “I can walk my dog anywhere I like, and maybe you ought to train your dogs a little so they don’t bark at everything that moves.”

At that, the guy just waved me off, muttered, “Yeah, whatever,” and headed back inside.

Clearly Not Drinking Deeply Enough

I’ve thought about that exchange many times since it occurred and—here comes the larger philosophical observation—it has come to emblematize for me the nature of human discourse in the 21st century, particularly since the introduction of social media. 

Hear me out.

Life—all of reality, in fact—is complicated, shaded by nuance, obfuscated by context. Consequently, too brief an examination of a situation yields an insufficient and one-dimensional understanding. Sure, we can sometimes determine the essential truth of a matter in an instant—such as when we stumble upon a hungry grizzly in a forest glade. That’s what the human fight or flight instinct is for, and why it’s deeply coded in our sympathetic nervous system. But modern life is seldom that simple. We have elections to assess, candidates to consider. Every day we read about artificial intelligence, wildfires, mass shootings, identity politics, homelessness, immigration, rising crime, the opioid epidemic—all of them complicated phenomena, all seemingly unfolding before us on CNN, Fox, Facebook, or Twitter (whoops, X). But these days, information comes to us in tantalizing fragments—news tickers, tweets, posts, TikTok videos—each carefully crafted to maximize not our understanding but our engagement. To make matters worse, the more we engage with these media, the more their algorithms tweak our newsfeeds until we’re receiving not only fragments of information, but narrowly selected fragments, usually from a slanted viewpoint.

All this leads to a sensation of broad comprehension. I must have seen a thousand posts about this! But in fact all we’ve assembled is a feeling—the mere ghost of an understanding—that fills us with false certainty and leaves our minds closed to alternate interpretations. Alexander Pope had it right when he wrote:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again.”

I realize it’s unflattering to think of most Americans as blundering about, drunk on “shallow draughts” of information, full of conviction on this issue or that, never really having dug deeply into the matter or thought critically about it. By digging deeply I mean reading extensively from different viewpoints and arriving at a measured and informed opinion. Or even not having an opinion. That’s okay, too, no matter what certain fringe groups tell us.

What is not okay, I believe, is to form an opinion based on partial information and then sound off with all the bluster of Napoleon haranguing his troops. That, my friends, is just inflicting one’s ignorance on the world. And it leads to hair-trigger responses like the good doctor’s when he burst onto his porch that winter night. How differently things might have gone if he’d paused a moment to read the situation more fully, and seen, for example, me coaxing my frightened puppy down the sidewalk. Or what if he’d reminded himself, These are my neighbors, so maybe I shouldn’t be an asshole? In my more reflective moments, I imagine the fuming physician coming back inside his living room and his wife looking up from a book to say, “If you’d have taken ten minutes to train the dogs, maybe you wouldn’t be blaming the neighbors for their barking.”

So what am I advocating here? I suppose I’m calling for the purposeful exercise of doubt—doubt that we ever achieve so full an understanding of an issue that we are entitled to be strident or belligerent or unyielding. Doubt begets humility, and humility helps us remember that no one has a monopoly on truth, no matter how loudly they yell—not me, not you, not even a fulminating doctor on his front porch.

8 thoughts on “The Virtues of Cultivated Doubt

  1. Very thoughtful analysis of the situation, Jim. Agree that cultivating the habit of exercising doubt and not jumping to conclusions would make us all more tolerant and tolerable people.

    That said, me thinks your neighbor is simply a narcissistic jerk.

  2. Such an important message, Jim, so well-stated!
    Cromwell’s “I beseech thee, … consider it possible you may be mistaken” is evergreen advice seldom followed.

  3. Marlo is a magnificent entity. Well bred, trained and honored by his masters who have been the best of stewards that any pet could have been blessed with that I have observed. Fuck off to those who should find greater pursuits.

  4. Excellent post! An incisive and salient commentary on discourse and engagement in the social media era, captured in the, now, all-too-common knee-jerk interactions among neighbors, passer-bys, and motorist. As you noted, we are all just moving through this hectic, chaotic world. Humility and self-doubt can go a long way in making this world a little less hectic, a bit less chaotic and much more pleasant. Cheers Jim, looking forward to your next piece!

  5. Such a smart piece that arises from a quotidian, amusing, small moment. Here’s my favorite bit: “But in fact all we’ve assembled is a feeling—the mere ghost of an understanding—that fills us with false certainty and leaves our minds closed to alternate interpretations.”

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