Scattered Remarks on Risk , Danger, and Uncertainty

1. Exercise for the Reader. Gavrilo Princip stepped out of a cheap Sarajevo restaurant, where he had just had lunch, onto the sidewalk. His day had not gone well. That morning he and some other Muslim nationalists had tried to assassinate the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. The first conspirator to face the Archduke’s entourage had lost his nerve. The second had thrown a grenade, but it rolled under the wrong car, injuring several guards. The cars had sped away, with none of the other conspirators taking any action. The bomb-thrower had attempted suicide by jumping in the river, but the river was shallow at that point and he was arrested. There was a good chance that he was informing on his colleagues even now. The jig was up, and for nothing! Suddenly, as Princip looked up the street, he beheld a sight he had never expected to see again. It was the Archduke and Princess Sophie, speeding toward him once again in their open car, on their way to visit the wounded guards in the hospital. As the car rolled past Princip, the driver realized he had taken a wrong turn. He applied the brakes put the car in reverse, rolling past Princip for a second – really a third – time. It was an opportunity never to be repeated. Princip drew his weapon, which was still loaded, and fired point blank into the bodies of Ferdinand and Sophie. These proved to be the first shots of World War I. Now I ask you: What were the prior odds of that happening?

2. The Obscuring Smoke of Battle: In almost any situation that calls for a decision, the information available to the individual, and in addition the individual’s competence to process that information, are radically unequal to the task of demonstrating, or proving, what the best course of action is. Reading today about what was said in contemporary debates about the Viet Nam War, we find it very hard to take these discussions seriously, or even find them interesting. It is not the fault of the participants, of course: that was then, this is now. We now know things they did not know, and the things they did know have sorted themselves out differently. Melville’s famous comment on "the obscuring smoke of battle" has an application that extends far beyond the battlefield. It is very true, as he says, that the non-combatant forty years later is in a very different situation from the commander in the field. It is also true that any decision is make in a context that is radically worse, as far as degree of knowledge, than one that will soon ripen with the mere passage of time. The wisdom for which the commander would gladly give his a kingdom will be cheaply available to everyone in just a short while. By comparison, the later point of view has infinite value, or would if it could only be moved back in time. If you wonder what a God’s eye view would be like, just wait: You will have it soon enough. Unfortunately, it will come too late to make a god of you.

3. Ex Ante and Ex Post: I have a die in my hand, which I am about to cast. You must bet which side will come up. You have six choices. Which will it be? You have next to no idea at all. It is true that what you have is not ... no idea. It will be any from one to six, but they are all equally likely. You say, "Well, alright: two!" I throw the little cube. It is two! Though you happened to be "right" (a word that seems a little misleading here) the difference between your state of mind before and your state of mid after is as absolute as any difference we can imagine. It is like the difference between the limited knowledge attributed to finite mortals and the perfect knowledge attributed to God. You have them both, but you have one of them after the fact and the other before.

4. Theoretical and Practical: Another vast difference: The commander in the smoke of battle must decide, the historian forty years later must understand. Before the die is cast, you bet; afterward, you can only observe. They who seek to understand often must make do with imperfect information, but those who act nearly always do. This of course is only a difference of degree. Still, it is underlain by a more profound difference, one that is no matter of degree but absolute. The one who seeks to understand need not judge. You can suspend judgment. Better yet, you can judge in part, and shape the judgement to fit the evidence: "it is likely," you can say, or even "it seems likely." But the one who acts cannot do this. Even to remain inactive, to do nothing, is in the relevant sense an action, in that it will always have distinct consequences which the individual will have to live with, just as if they were the result of action chosen and carried out. If I do not bet then, at the very least, that particular opportunity is gone, never to return. The Archduke will die of some other cause. And, as I have said, when the opportunity is seized it is a vague wraith; when it is known, it is already dead.

5. Against this, someone might want to say: Nonsense! When we act, we can shape the action to fit the evidence, and we do it all the time. If you offer me a chance to win a dollar in the event that I can name the number that will come up when you throw the die, how much should I be willing to pay for that chance? Answer: No more than 16 cents. The value of the winning bet is $1, and the probability of winning is 1/6, or .166666.... Princip’s choice, which was to either shoot or not shoot, was only typical of a certain class of actions. Many actions are not like that at all. Every action is a risk, but risk is a matter of degree, and often actions can be adjusted as to how much they risk. In this way, it is often possible to act partially, just as it is possible to judge partially.

Now, what I meant by judging "in part" has a great deal in common with the sound practice of adjusting the amount hazarded in an action, but it is in another way profoundly different. The method of calculation just referred to is the one prescribed by standard Bayesian decision theory: You take the value of a possible result of a given course of action, "discount" it by the probability of its occurrence, and the result is the present expected value of that course of action. (Of course if you are for some reason risk-averse, you will need to discount it even more, the rate depending on how risk-averse you are.) But what I was referring to when I talked about judging "in part" was a judgment that was primarily about the past. When you say "it is likely," that is merely a crude summary of the state of the evidence presently available to you. To say "it seems likely" is the same thing compounded: it is a comment on how evident the evidence is. Such statements, if made with sufficient care, remain true, even if the "likely" event does not happen. After all, it is about the evidence that, at the time you said it, was available to you. At the time the statement was made, the event was likely. The same sort of thing is true of "it seems." Obviously, that was how it seemed! The fact that these statements don’t become false with the passage of time proves that they were actually about the past. Of course the interest or point of these statements lies in the way they bear upon the future, on the events that they say are likely or unlikely, but as long as they are carefully crafted they are safe.

This escape into safety is not available in the realm of action. When you buy your chance at the dollar, you will (if you were a good Bayesian) either lose your sixteen cents or come out eighty-four cents ahead, and you just don’t know which it will be. Similarly, if you don’t buy a chance, you know that you are saving whatever you would have spent, but you might have come out ahead, and you do not know whether you will be avoiding a loss or a gain.

The radical uncertainty of action and life are the direct result of the fact that they contain an ineradicable reference to the future. Thinking about action and life – the theories created by the observer, not the planning done by the agent – is capable of certainty because it is about the past. It is so clear and solid because it is about the world of the dead and gone. The Greeks had it wrong. They thought Hades, the realm of the dead, was populated by vague wraiths, by "shades." Actually, it is the world of the fully crystallized, the over-and-done-with, the once-and-for-all. It is the future that is full of shades.

6. To approach life as an observer and theorist, and not as a participant, is a great temptation. It is so tempting because it offers the bait of certitude and security. To the extent that this is the incentive to which the theorist is responding, the motive that moves theory is cowardice. In fact, it is even worse than that. To look at action from the spectator’s point of view is to critique the heroism of the agent by means of the shabby trick of hindsight. Viewed from this if-only-he-knew-what-we-know-now point of view, all action looks at least a little bit stupid.

This could be part of the reason why so many biographers nowadays take a "feet of sand" approach to their helpless (because already dead) subjects. The paradigm of the sort of biography I am thinking of is Justin Kaplan’s Pulitzer Prize winning Sam Clemens and Mark Twain, which attempts to explain Mark Twain away as an overgrown adolescent who wanted more than anything else to avoid growing up and who by God never did. An even nastier example is Donald Spoto’s biography of Alfred Hitchcock, The Dark Side of Genius. Obviously, biographies were not always like this. In the nineteenth century, massive works like Thayer’s Beethoven and Marshall’s Washington were intended precisely as monuments, as grand mausoleums in which greatness is entombed; but the unfair advantage that the biographer, backward-looking observer, has over the subject of the biography, always the forward looking agent off-balance and in the midst of things, means that it will attract a certain kind of writer when they are (as today) in super-abundant supply: those who cannot sympathize with anything great and who take a malicious pleasure in proving that it wasn’t really so great in the first place. Today, in fact, there are no longer any biographers who can resist this temptation.

7. Actually there is specific reason for the uncertainty of action, one factor that is mainly responsible for it, and it is out of a misconceived politeness that I have omitted mention of it so for. Here is an example. I am thinking of buying stock in Chrysler Motors. I am watching the charts showing changes in current price. I look at recent fluctuations in its price. I predict that it will rise by two points. Instead in falls by one half. I reconsider, and decide that it will fall another one point after a certain stretch of time. But the stock, apparently bored with falling, rises one point. This happens repeatedly, turning my every attempt at prediction into a poor joke. The price giggles and quakes in ways that make no sense to me at all. Why is this happening? It isn’t the physical goods that Chrysler owns. Those cars aren’t going anywhere by themselves. No, the problem dear reader, is you: it is other people. Why don’t you ever just stand still? Why don’t you just stop, or at least move in a straight line? Thus from the womb of cowardice is born oppression, the eternal urge to coerce and manipulate the other.

As I have said, I almost never know for sure how my own actions will come out, but at least I know what I mean to do. With other people, I don’t even have a very solid grip on that. As a result, for the most part I only know what they are going to do next when they have done it. With rocks, plants, and heavenly bodies I generally know what is going to happen next. With human beings it is the exception.

8. Nagging, the endless repetition of the same requests ("Why don’t you see the doctor about your weight?" "I wish you would quit smoking." "Are you done with that report yet?") is a curious phenomenon. The requests are obviously attempts to get something, but the tone and manner hint at a dim awareness of the hopelessness of these attempts. The nag must know, the very weariness of that tone of voice reveal it, that he or she has said the same thing a hundred times, with no results. The feminists would probably say that nagging is associated with women because they are (or were until very recently) the powerless ones. I suppose this is true, but it really represents a deeper and more universal phenomenon than that. Nagging is really the most natural voice of those who attempt to control a human will that is not their own. Those who seek power but do not nag are still unaware of their own true powerlessness. The pomp and noise that come with their alleged might deafens them to the truth.

9. Angelic Fury and the Beast: This is an Algerian folk tale. The Prophet Mohammed had a donkey, and one day he set out on his donkey across the desert, headed for a distant oasis. The going was hot and hard. At length the donkey looked over his shoulder and said, "Why do you carry a stick?" "It is for controlling stubborn little donkeys like you," said the Prophet. "Throw away the stick," said the donkey, "I will work as I am told." Mohammed pretended to discard the stick, but actually hid it under his robe. After a while, the donkey grew tired of work, refused to go any further. "But you promised to carry me!" cried the Prophet. "So I did," replied the donkey, "but now I have changed my mind. I have hooves and you have your bare hands. See how far they get you." The Prophet drew out his stick and furiously pounded the donkey with a hundred blows. He then cursed him, and condemned him to another hundred blows a day for the rest of his life, and if it should ever happen that some future master, whether out of kindness or because the donkey had learned to behave himself, should fail to give the donkey his daily beating, the blows would be dealt him by angels.

So violence vented upon an unpromising subject, upon a being that cannot be forced, is compounded over and over again. Force leads to anger at poor results that force achieves, which leads to redoubled efforts to control, which leads to more anger. Anger spreads and blooms into fury. The fury at bestial recalcitrance promises in the end to become infinite, perfect, angelic.

10. There is really no such thing as "micro-management." By the time it has come down to the "micro" level, the obsession to control others has ceased to manage anything. By now it is a pretense at a kind of control that cannot exist.

11. The collapse of the Soviet empire was perhaps the greatest anti-climax of world history. When the terrifying facade of absolute state power fell away we saw – what? A mess wrapped in a disorder inside a confusion. Not order but chaos. The so-called totalitarians had not achieved any of their objectives. During the ‘twenties, the Bolsheviks launched concerted campaign, involving all the schools and the state apparatus of propaganda, to convince Russians to drop their ages-old vice of antisemitism. "The jews are our friends!" they preached, and they made damn sure the people heard their message. It was perhaps the first cock-crow of "political correctness." When the Bolsheviks finally decamped decades later, Russia was still, despite all these efforts, one of the most antisemitic nations on earth. Some Russians think the anti-antisemitism campaign made antisemitism worse.

The very idea of totalitarianism is probably a mistake. We owe it to the myopia of Orwell and Arendt. At least if you define it as they did, as a state system that has absolute power, it never has existed. There is no such power, unless you redefine it to include the power to cause unknown and unpredictable sorts of destruction and death. "Power" usually means a capacity to do what one intends or wishes to do. This may well be something the "totallitarians" never really had.

12. Having children turns normal people into cowards. Oddly enough, I don’t think I have heard anyone say this before, but it seems obviously true. For several years after our son Nat was born I developed a fear of heights. For the first time in my life I could hardly stand to be in high places. A trip to the top of the Empire State Building was nauseating. Riding with my son in a Ferris wheel was torture. For some reason, I was more aware than ever before of the how high up I was, and of the how utterly helpless and terrified I would be if ever I were to fall. I thought at the time it was a result of having this precious and vulnerable new life left in my care. I had never been so vividly aware of human frailty. To this day I wince, literally, when I think of times when, as a small child, he fell and cut or scraped himself. He healed within a day or two – at that age everything heals with a weird, seemingly unnatural rapidity – but I am still wounded! I think as a parent you lose a little of your natural ability to assess risk rationally and realistically. You know that your old careless habits won’t do any longer, and you tend to overcompensate. I suppose that women tend to be more cowardly than men – more insistent on security and less tolerant of danger and disorder – because they are more fully immersed in the parental role. A state run by people who are parents will always tend to be a nanny-state, because parents tend to have the mentality of nannies.

13. A few examples of human devices that are mainly ways to reduce risk: hedge funds, insurance, banks, smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, seat belts, air bags, burglar alarms, safety nets, the police, the standing military, the fire department, medical knowledge in most of its branches, the welfare state with its many tentacles and suckers, God, the immortal soul. With the exception of the last two named, none of these things were available to the average American (let alone the average human!) long before the year 1850. Most did not exist at all. The culture of security is a really a very new thing. Until very recently, the point of view of the average human being was something like: life is liable to give you a terrible beating soon, and it won’t do to whine about it – or to worry about it too much, either. No longer! Now we worry without ceasing.