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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 www.thewindingriver.org .

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”