Homo sapiens? Wise choices in conditions of uncertainty and risk

I have previously noted that calling ourselves “wise” twice homo sapiens sapiens — didn’t take. Today’s guest blogger Jeff Huggins, a frequent CP commenter, has more.  Jeff is a philosopher, former McKinsey consultant, Harvard MBA, U.C. Berkeley chemical engineer, Bob Dylan fan, and concerned citizen and parent.  His website is .

Imagine that you are a parent of a young and energetic child.

You and your child are on a walk, in a park, on a warm summer day.

On your journey, you come across a large pond or small lake.  It looks natural and inviting.  It seems clean, although you can’t actually see the bottom because of the water’s rich colors, slight silt content, and the glare of the sun’s reflection.  In short: a natural and fresh pond, of uncertain depth.

Now, your child is eager to cool off and have fun.  She can swim well enough to keep afloat safely.  But, she hasn’t developed that sort of wisdom that will certainly arrive as she enters her pre-teen years””you hope.

As it happens, there’s a short ledge overlooking the pond, and your child wants to dive into the water, head first, from the ledge.

The water looks refreshing.  Your child can swim well enough.  You certainly don’t want to be a mean, closed-minded, over-controlling parent.  The ledge is not all that high.  The only problem is, the water’s depth is very much uncertain.  At the spot in question, the water could be eight feet deep””plenty for a safe dive, under the circumstances.  Or, it might only be two feet deep.  In that case, if she dives, your child could end up with a broken neck, strained back, or sharp twig in her eye.

Your child wants to dive.  What do you do?

This is a matter, of course, of making an important choice under conditions of uncertainty and risk.  We humans face similar choices throughout our lives.

Clearly, you don’t””or at least shouldn’t””need to be a philosopher, ethicist, Olympic diving champion, saint, PhD from MIT, Democrat, Republican, or Tea Partier, let alone an economist, to consider the situation and figure out a wise path forward.  Please also note that my description of the situation didn’t have to appeal to any unique philosophical considerations or to terms familiar only to practicing limnologists.

Think about it.

Nevertheless, it often helps to hear from people who do think about such things based on a more careful examination of the likely facts and relevant considerations.  To that end, I’ll quickly mention three examples.

In his great guest post in early February (Feb. 9) titled “Ten reasons why examining climate change policy through an ethical lens is a practical imperative,” Donald A. Brown, Associate Professor for environmental ethics, science, and law at Penn State, wrote:

Because climate change raises civilization challenging ethical and justice issues, the failure to examine arguments opposing climate change policies through an ethical lens guarantees that: “¦  4.  Important ethical issues entailed by decision-making in the face of scientific uncertainty will remain hidden including: (a) Who should have the burden of proof?, (b) What quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof when decisions must be made in the face of scientific uncertainty?, (c) Whether the victims of climate change have a right to participate in decisions that must be made in the face of uncertainty?, and (d) Whether those causing climate change have obligations to act now because if the world waits to act until all uncertainties are resolved it will likely be too late [to] prevent catastrophic impacts to others and to stabilize greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations at safe levels.

As a second example, I once saw the noted philosopher and ethicist Henry Shue (Cornell, Oxford) give a compelling talk about the ethical considerations involved in making important decisions, under conditions of uncertainty, that likely involve risks to others.  I couldn’t possibly do justice to his great talk if I tried to summarize it here.  But, you can imagine some of the important considerations by considering the “diving in the pond question” posed above, especially if you consider your child’s interest in having a healthy future as well as her right to a good chance at having a healthy future.

And, speaking of risks, here are some excerpts from The American Chemical Society’s Position Statement on Global Climate Change:

There is very little room for doubt that observed climate trends are due to human activities.  The threats are serious and action is urgently needed to mitigate the risks of climate change.”¦  We are, in effect, in the midst of a vast experiment with the Earth’s climate””with uncertain, but likely quite unpleasant, outcomes.

As we have heard before, the ‘sapiens‘ in the term ‘Homo sapiens‘ is Latin and refers to wisdom or intelligence.  Whether we live up to that name, as a species, will depend to a significant degree on how well we make vitally important decisions, under conditions of varying degrees of uncertainty, and whether those decisions actually increase risk and “bring it on”, prolong risk, slightly decrease risk, or aim to put the ongoing human journey on a safe and sound path forward.

Bertrand Russell once observed, “Some people would rather die than think; and many do.”

The great 20th Century philosopher Forrest Gump put it this way: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

18 Responses to Homo sapiens? Wise choices in conditions of uncertainty and risk

  1. mike roddy says:

    Good one, Jeff, I liked the little girl diving into the pond analogy. I wish our leaders and media barons would frame global warming in this way. If our best scientists are correct, the little girl, who represents all of us, will break her neck. If the Richard Lindzens and Rush Limbaughs are correct, everything will be OK, and she’ll be driving a Porsche when she turns 18.

    The kind of choice you demonstrated here is hardwired into us. Our problem, as you have often pointed out, is that the salesmen for those who would sell us products encouraging the girl to jump are well entrenched in our cultural and media structures.

    I see it as an ethical situation, too, but am less sure about whether that will resonate. Talk radio is full of people making vicious arguments and cloaking them in ethical terms, so people are wary of those kinds of appeals. It would take a leader like Lincoln to communicate ethically, and I’m not sure if our culture can produce that kind of man anymore.

  2. paulm says:

    homo stupida caudex

  3. Leif says:

    Capitalism and corporations are constructs of human “intelligence” an as such are “operating” systems that have functioned extremely well in lifting a small segment of humanity to dizzy heights of prosperity but at the expense of leaving the vast majority destitute. Both science and common sense tell us that continuation of the status quo is impossible.

    What to do?

    In my view there is only one solution but would love to see more.

    It is imperative that either thru laws, revolution, epiphany, military intervention, or total collapse of civilization that we require capitalism and corporations to factor long term sustainability into corporate and financial decisions first and short term profits second. It is unconscionable that capitalism, corporations and humanity cannot pursue the goal of long term survivability with shared enthusiasm.

    Einstein said it well . “I do not know the weapons of WW III but WW IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

    My wish is “WW III” will be fought with rational thinking and scientific understanding and that humanity can be victorious.

    Perhaps we can skip WW IV altogether.

  4. Leif says:

    How to make it all pay?

    What would be the commodity of the future if capitalism and corporations shared humanities’ goals?

    Again I see only one. Sustainable energy! In addition that each and every person has an opportunity to participate in the production there of. And the cost of that energy is pegged at the cost of all social services. That includes defense, health care, sewer and water, the whole shebang! Interest on national debt? That is a “hit” that capitalism takes for building this house of cards and exploiting humanity these past centuries. I see no redeeming value in humanity paying off for capitalism walking humanity to the door step of doom. (Capitalism saw nothing wrong when humanitarian enterprises went tits up because of Mayhoff.) What is good for the goose and all that!

    Use lots of susainable energy and do lots of “good” for the world. Produce more sustainable energy than you use and you have a cash cow in your yard that eats no food. It would just require some TLC.

  5. Heraclitus says:

    “Some people would rather die than think”

    This sums it all up for me at the moment. We just keep drifting through, coping with life and so many refuse even to engage with the reality we face. What’s the answer? What was the answer in the lead up to WW II? Because that is the level of urgency that we need to inject into people’s lives. We need to keep having conversations, maybe even force others into those conversations. People can’t be allowed to keep on not thinking no matter how painful it is.

    In some ways the biggest enemy to reason is not the baying pack of rabid deniers but the average person who simply doesn’t engage in the debate.

    Nice conversation starter Jeff. Thanks.

  6. fj2 says:

    This discussion is a bit too casual and does not describe suitable action in a crisis situation.

    In a crisis situation action is not optional.

    Likely working within severe time and resource constraints, the best possible resources are allocated to analyze the problem to elicit the best possible strategy for crisis resolution.

  7. Bill W says:

    Heraclitus at #5 asks, “What’s the answer? What was the answer in the lead up to WW II?”

    The answer in WWII was Pearl Harbor. Until the Japanese attacked, much of the US was staunchly isolationist. We managed to send some aid to Britain, mostly to our own financial advantage, but we didn’t get serious until Japan attacked us.

    Unfortunately, by the time we have a climate “Pearl Harbor”, the “Axis” of climate change will likely be unstoppable. Heck, it’s already unstoppable. It’s just a question of whether we’re in a position to negotiate terms of surrender.

  8. adrian says:

    Thank you for this post. It strikes me that many people, while afraid of science, or not understanding scientific thinking, do think in terms of morality or ethics, and in a more concrete than abstract way. (Why Jeff’s example/analogy is so useful; why Rush L. is so appealing to some.)

    To me, as to so many who comment on this blog, climate change is hugely an ethical problem, and indubitably all proposed actions must include ethical considerations. To maintain false objectivity about the problem, or to continue with BAU even if the individual (or corporation) knows objectively that it will contribute to increased global warming is to be unethical. (Of course one often must choose among poor alternatives, and complexities do exist: one does use one’s car, admittedly under duress, even if one knows one is making that direct contribution.)

    Conservationists know the old Aldo Leopold quote: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” It strikes me that this about sums up the morality of action vs. inaction, and if acting, how to decide what sort of actions to take, regarding climate change as well.

    I hope that Jeff, and Joe, Donald Brown, and everyone else will persist in bringing up–loudly!–the need for the “ethical lens” when considering our global predicament and any proposed mitigation, adaptation and so forth.

  9. Heraclitus says:

    Bill, for those of us in the UK the war had been poottling on for a bit before Pearl Harbor, but that aside I fear you are right that it will take a catastrophic event to mobilise the majority.

    Now what would the climatic equivalent to invading Poland be?

  10. Jeff Huggins says:

    Thank You

    Thanks, everybody, for your comments and additional thoughts.

    Yes, adrian, I love that quote from Aldo Leopold and use it often. Thanks.

    Although I’m paying attention to the health care progress today, and also “must” watch the Cal Bears hopefully beat Duke, I’ll try to add some other great quotes over the next couple days. Also, I’d like to add a thought or two regarding how I think we should think about “geoengineering” in the context of the large problem we face, in short, NOT as an excuse or as a reason not to face and address the causal problem, but only as a very, very, very last resort that we can be in some position to do if we fail dismally in all other respects to face and address the climate problem wisely. Although we should not ignore the possible need to implement some degree of “geoengineering” if all else fails, and if WE fail, we should try not to fail in the first place.

    In any case, thanks again for your comments, and I’ll try to provide more quotes in the next day or two.

    Be Well — and don’t jump headfirst into shallow ponds!


  11. Durango says:

    Jeff, my advice would be “Go jump in the lake!”

  12. Leif says:

    Well, it looks like President Obama issued an executive order that public funding will not support abortion in order to pass the health care bill. Perhaps we need an executive order to not use public funding to support subsidies for the fossil fuel industry which currently is responsible for more lives lost around the world than abortions by a long shot. Just what are the rules on paying taxes under protest? Could a tax rebellion have legs?

  13. James Newberry says:

    Just because a material will catch on fire does not mean it should be defined as an “energy resource.” How unethical is it for our nation’s economy (as defined by federal law) to define mined material resources, fraudulently as “energy resources?” Does this perverse state of affairs have anything to do with the fact that the largest military force on earth is powered and armed with the materials defined as fossil and fissile?

  14. Christopher Yaun says:


    I am convinced. Now. Now do we persuade the other 6,999,988 humans to join our cause. I doubt the jumping in the lake analogy is going to persuade more than a few dozen.

    If the entire world was enflamed in war in 1940, except the USA, and we insisted on maintaining neutrality…..let’s stop kidding ourselves…. Is anyone here ready to take to the street corner carrying a sign? Is anyone ready to walk away from a job and protest in front of the Senate?

    The oil industry giants met in Houston last week for CERAWEEK and the only message they leaked to the press was, “There is no peak oil!”

    The oil giants have 40 rigs drilling in greater than 4000 feet of water to depths of 2-3 miles and operation costs of $2-3 million per day, Chevron’s new rig in the Gulf of Mexico is generating something like a billion dollars per month of revenues,,,,

    And the best we can do is DE Rev2 and “Don’t dive head first into unfamiliar waters!”

    It took every political chit our government could muster to pass a minimal, weak, pitiful excuse for a healthcare bill that we can’t even begin to afford. Maybe Congress can debate a cap and trade bill next year that begins to reduce carbon sometime in the next decade and after the oil companies make a huge profit on the tickets….

    And 12 of us are swapping teenage summer swimming analogies….we gotta do better than that! Someone must have a new and pursasive arguement that I can bring to the next dinner party…something that will cut through the jaded resistance and command anyones attention?

    Is there anyone who participates on this site that has cut their carbon emissions to zero? That is all there is! Each one of us, one at a time has to adopt a zero carbon lifestyle….only when enough individuals make a stand and the oil companies begin to loose money on those multi-billion dollar investments that we will get their attention. I can guarantee that Rex Tillerson is not going to stop drilling for natural gas because we are talking about swimming safety. I know this for sure.

    I’m buying property on high ground in the north country before the rush begins!

  15. David Smith says:

    I like the pond analogy but I think that it should be applied to geo-engineering and not so much to AGW itself. With AGW we are certain that there are perils. There is no possibility of a clear deep pool. We have a fairly good idea of what to expect below the surface. With geo-engineering outcomes are less clear and what we don’t know can hurt us alot.

  16. Jeff Huggins says:

    Regarding David Smith’s Comment 14

    Hi David, and thanks for your Comment 14.

    I agree that the pond situation can help one think about geoengineering, and it applies (in various ways) to most any situation involving uncertainty and risk, as long as one keeps differences and matters of degree in mind.

    That said, to be clear, my point in the analogy was not to suggest that the nature and degrees of uncertainty and risk are the same in the pond situation as they are in the case of our very real climate change problem. In other words, I wasn’t suggesting or implying that there is a fair chance that we have no problem at all, as might be the case if the pond (in the example) was eight feet deep.

    Instead, one of the points that the example should illustrate is this: EVEN IN situations where the uncertainty is “wide open” and there is a substantial chance that there might be no problem at all, and in which the situation MIGHT be safe, along with the other chance that it might NOT be safe — even in those situations — it is still wise and healthy and most responsible, and ethical (if others are at risk), and usually normal, to avoid taking the risk if the stakes are high.

    Thus, in cases where we DO have excellent evidence and reason to conclude that there ARE very substantial risks, (even as there are still some uncertainties related to matters of degree, timing, and so forth), and where the outcomes will be “likely quite unpleasant” if we don’t act responsibly, we should (of course) make decisions to face and address the problems and to clear the way to a healthy human future.

    Thanks again for your comment, and Cheers,


  17. Jeff Huggins says:

    A Few Related Quotes

    “… but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision. They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones.” (George Orwell, 1984)

    “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” (Albert Einstein)

    “Confucius said, ‘People who do not think far enough ahead inevitably have worries near at hand.’” (The Analects, 15:12)

    “The wise man does at once what the fool does finally.” (Machiavelli; a paraphrase)

    “Confucius said, ‘Not to mend one’s ways when one has erred is to err indeed.’” (The Analects, 15:30)

    “We have sunk so low it has become the obligation of every decent, thinking individual to re-state the obvious!” (George Orwell)

    “What good am I if I know and don’t do,
    If I see and don’t say, if I look right through you,
    If I turn a deaf ear to the thunderin’ sky,
    What good am I?”
    (Bob Dylan, What Good Am I?)

  18. Leif says:

    Einstein: “I do not know the weapons of WW III, but WW IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”