Because it’s there…

Dr Edmund Chattoe-Brown, Department of Sociology, University of Leicester:

edmund-facing-whiteThe assumptions you don’t realise you are making are the ones that will do you in. When we ask whether man should go to Mars, why do we tend to think in terms of the benefits and costs, what kinds of benefits and costs do we think of and what good does that do us in deciding?

Famously, when asked why he climbed Everest, George Mallory is quoted as saying, “Because it’s there.” Can we learn something important from that answer?

The idea of Cost-Benefit Analysis, like any theory, is based on assumptions and is only as good as those assumptions. Yet it has become endemic in thinking about choice, particularly in the public sphere. Clearly, buying baked beans over and over again ought to tell us pretty reliably whether we want to pay the extra two pence for the better brand or save the money and have slightly more watery sauce. But what happens when we do something only very rarely (like choose a degree or get married)?

Firstly, we may have a lot of trouble assessing the costs and benefits of something we haven’t tried. The situation will be even worse if nobody else has tried it either. This is true even if there is nothing ‘unusual’ about the choice like addiction. After we have tried the beans, there is no mystery about how much we liked them but there’s still no reason to think we can judge this well in advance. The further away from everyday experience something is, the less likely we are to get it right.

Secondly, if the choice involves anything more complicated than immediate satisfaction (like eating), we may also struggle to decide how likely relevant events are to occur. It is one thing to choose a university but quite another to put a sensible number to the chance of getting a first. Trying to put numbers on the likelihood of getting to Mars (given how complicated that is and how many people, institutions and technologies it will involve) may simply be covering up inspired guesswork with a veneer of scientific respectability.

Of course, this isn’t the first time mankind has done something extraordinary so perhaps we can look to the past to learn something useful? Should we have discovered the USA? Or split the atom? Or pressed on with technologies like fire or the wheel? In hindsight, it isn’t so easy to decide. These discoveries didn’t just have material benefits and costs that are almost impossible to evaluate. They changed our whole conception of the world. How, literally not metaphorically, can we possibly put a price on that? On the other hand, the ‘good reasons’ given at the time of some decisions must be treated with caution. Wasn’t nuclear power going to give us power so cheap we wouldn’t have to meter it? Wasn’t WWI the war to end war? Didn’t we go looking for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq? Having good reasons for things isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, particularly when vested interests are at work.

A final challenge to an approach based on Cost-Benefit Analysis is that it can only take account of current factors. We must either assume that all those yet to be born will be just like us or speak on their behalf. Given the likely duration of life on earth, this makes the current population into an unrepresentative dictatorship.

Even apart from the fact that we cannot possibly see (let alone evaluate) the outcomes of such world-changing actions, here is the most provocative possibility of all. What if we tried and failed? What if we never tried? Suppose we stayed here and played football and drank beer until the sun went nova knowing we had given up on the rest of the universe as if it was an overpriced brand of beans? Could we be happy with that thought? Far from asking if we should go, perhaps we should ask how we can stay on Earth forever and why we should stop at Mars: Because it’s all there.

Dr Edmund Chattoe-Brown is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Leicester and a founder member of the University’s Well-Being and Health Research Group. His research deals with decision-making, computer simulation, social networks and models of innovation and change.

He has also written for Leicester Exchanges on ‘Is Britain Broken?’: It’s not broken but the instructions are missing and ‘Happy nation – should we measure national well-being?’: Happiness and the unknown unknowns

One Comment

  1. Posted 24/03/2011 at 16:46 | Permalink

    Clearly we need a new and methodological system of ‘pragmatic analysis’. A scientifically-based set or perquisites for any venture with success measured by progress overall rather than singe-factor dimensions like economic or political benefits. When something is not working or not working efficiently, this is not because it cannot work and cannot work effectively, but simply because an incorrect approach or paradigm is being applied.

    Consider for example, the categorical imperative when applied to long-term contingency planning – this is not seen wide-scale in our society not because it doesn’t or hasn’t worked but because it hasn’t been applied or it hasn’t been applied correctly i.e. within the framework of a progressive and adaptable methodology, supported by scientific boundary conditions. Evaluation and contingency planning are based on information available at a point in time, with its effectiveness of use or application, determined by the method or system in use at that same point. It isn’t that we can’t do it, it is that we could do it much better!

    Science has no vested interest other than in itself although it can be exploited by non-scientific governments. A scientific government however, by its very self-critical and continually progressive and dynamic nature, would respond to contingency planning and resource management in a way which would, due to the requirement for the homeostasis of the population – inherently be anti-extreme/fascist. (It is likely to be a democratic federation).

    Anything is impossible to evaluate if one uses the incorrect test and impossible to understand with the incorrect reference; careless to risk with incorrect inference.
    I do not think it should be said that events should be predicted, as if one should treat the environment as an unknown quantity – I think that the environment should be managed to accommodate for events which might occur due to extraneous factors. Our ability to manage our environment so dynamically and our great potential to manage it well, makes us the most successful species in terms of high-order functions, on the planet. We are in a giant pickle mainly because of mismanagement and misperception not because of some evil force beyond our control and evasive to our ever-increasing technological insight.

    Man’s subconscious is filled with himself. That is to say, he is inherently concerned with his own existence and all that regards it. Man’s self-consciousness and ‘dilemma of purpose’ – what I call his preoccupation of ‘necessity and identity’ is derived from his need to understand and manage his environment – as much now as ever, albeit in different ways given different demographic factors. Management of changes in all forms, social or natural, requires reason, cooperation and ingenuity in man as a social animal – and it is most effective when he has a shared identity from which he may derive purpose. It is unfortunate that in most cases, war has been the unifying factor,- however, with the progressive and well-explored understanding of empirical methodology, the success (or lack thereof) of a system of pragmatism, as with any science, should be self-evident and efficiently adjustable; with very little risk or regression.

    Both global and local contingency planning and resource management (people are a resource too) are organised by political systems flawed to an unnecessary and profound degree with antagonistic vested interests. (Not all vested interests are detrimental to certain structure of course). It is little wonder why many people become cynical, apathetic (or both) when the prospect of change is threatening rather than promising.

    Ideas championing the importance of human cohesiveness as well as diversity (very necessary for progress and evolution alike!) are not relatively new social phenomena, but part of man’s evolutionary success. Influential leaders have shared in this idea and utilized it to achieving their ends – many of whom made use of an unjust political system that was not regulated by empirical reform or critical methodology. This does not make the idea of social cohesion as a driving force in man’s progress ineffective itself; nor should it, to the astute mind, imply that it could never be both successful and fair (within a progressively expanding and improving threshold).

    With progress and ingenuity in mind, I like to think that an old problem can be solved with a new solution. If man’s reach did not exceed his grasp, he would not strive for progress.

    I’m a student at the University of Leicester and interested in alternative [innovative] political structures/politic-economic and legal reform and pragmatic theory or ‘technological progressivism’. I’m also interested in behavioural ecology and resource management. In my degree I deal with organisms at their most fundamental levels to entire macrocosms.


    Edmund Chattoe-Brown Reply:

    I think this is a very good idea. Rather than ask what happens based on what we happen to measure, ask what we would want to assess and then we can start to think about how …


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