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