Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Risk Management

A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim

As an Atheist, I am often presented with Pascal’s Wager – essentially a postulation that one can optimize expected value by subscribing to Christianity. To be frank, although Blaise Pascal is duly revered for elevating the condition of human intellect, his eponymous wager betrays his fallibility. The wager proposes a binary choice and a binary result and evaluates the possible outcomes as follows:

NO BELIEFno lossbig loss
BELIEFno lossbig gain

Although Pascal’s Wager clearly establishes a profoundly optimized expected value for subscribing to Christianity, it is fundamentally flawed by two false dichotomies. As a Catholic philosopher, Pascal limited both the choices and the results to Catholicism. The wager completely ignores Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and all other religions, not to mention all sectarian variations. Most, if not all, of these options contain mutually exclusive doctrines and dogmas: for instance, the god of Islam condemns those who subscribe to Judaism.

Furthermore, considering the propensity of religion for imagining increasingly superlative punishments, rewards, and gods, it becomes apparent that one should not limit oneself to only the pool of religions fabricated thus far but should, rather, press one’s mind to its limits of imagining the absolute and ultimately worst case scenario impossible. Consider, if you will, the concept of a god that demands your worship while offering eternal punishment or reward to your entire family. Surely such a god must be given top priority because the result applies not only to your eternal soul but also to the eternal souls of every single person you love.

Following the above logic, it soon becomes clear that the only reasonable course of action is to have every single person on the planet cease all pursuits so we can all focus on collaboratively embellishing continually worse and better case scenarios for the rewards and punishments of ever greater gods. Although this line of reasoning results in the slipperiest of all slopes, it does provide better footing than the product of multiplying two false dichotomies. In point of fact, it represents an established form of risk management that focuses on the uncertainty of worst case scenarios.

Managing risk by evaluating worst case scenarios for which certainty has not been and/or cannot be established is known as the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle espouses a basis for public policy that practices caution in the context of uncertainty. It is essentially a restatement of Pascal’s Wager that replaces belief with action and god with hazard thusly:

NO ACTIONno lossbig loss
ACTIONno lossbig gain

This type of evaluation has become common amongst proponents of extremely precautionary environmental policy. In cases where evidence may not be conclusive that environmental catastrophe is imminent, it is sometimes argued that the arrival of such evidence may signal a point of no return. Essentially this is analogous to Pascal’s evaluation that the certainty of a god cannot be determined until it is too late. Like Pascal, many environmentalists evaluate inaction (non-belief) as having no downside if the hazard (god) does not actually exist but having catastrophic implications if it turns out to be real. The evaluation of action (belief) follows suit by having no downside if the hazard (god) turns out not to exist but very positive implications if it is real.

Likely the most emotionally charged area of public policy currently employing the precautionary principle is in actions undertaken for public security in response to the threat posed by terrorism. Although terrorism is a certainty of the modern world, the specific hazards posed are not certain. Public security practices taken to prevent terrorism address threats and enemies of which and whom there is no certainty.

Just like Pascal and his belief in the Catholic god, environmental and terrorist issues present us with potential actions and hazards that should not be arbitrarily reduced to dichotomies. Fortunately there has been a great deal of advancement in the way such wagers are evaluated. For one, our evaluation of hazards can be constrained by setting minimum parameters for plausibility. Secondly, the result of inaction is not as superlative as eternal damnation. Finally, we can tangibly evaluate the costs of our actions to our pocketbooks and our liberties.

Unfortunately, public policy determined by precautionary principle can be subject to just the sort of slippery slope earlier applied to Pascal’s Wager. Those who are intellectually committed to a policy can overcome minimum parameters for plausibility by over-stating the consequences of inaction. Negotiation of policy can be easily swept away by appeals to emotion, leaving those armed with the most alarmist rhetoric leading the way down the slippery slope. Furthermore, in a world troubled by both shrinking pocketbooks and fleeting liberties, the cost of excessive caution should be closely examined before we automatically and blindly follow the very questionable doctrine of ‘better safe than sorry’.

I hope this little treatment of the similarities between Pascal’s Wager and the plausibility principle will help modern skeptics recognize and evaluate rhetoric designed to sway the public into adopting policies that over-manage risk. Although an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, let us not adopt polices that invoke a pound of prevention when the only ailment threatening us is uncertainty.

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