Risk and uncertainty

Part of the lecture “Truth, authority and policy in the twenty-first century” by Lisa Anderson (source The Thinking State, WRR Lecture 2007)

“Considerable behavioral research suggests that the further away in both space and time a prospective risk seems to be, the less likely we are to take action to address or mitigate the risk itself. As Elke Weber puts it, “Personal evidence of global warming and its potentially devastating consequences can be counted on to be an extremely effective teacher and motivator. Unfortunately, such lessons may arrive too late for corrective action.” And even if they arrive early, we are resistant to learning. From Nassim Taleb’s observation that highly improbable events have disproportionate impact, making risk and uncertainty very difficult to calculate, to Philip Tetlock’s studies showing that social science experts are no better at prediction than their ignorant peers, there is ample and increasing evidence that even disciplined, scientifically trained human minds are deeply biased. We believe what others believe, what confirms our prejudices, what lies between two more extreme choices. We prefer what is more easily available – we really do prefer the bird in the hand over the two in the tree – and we are more reluctant to surrender what we have than to acquire what we don’t have. We penalise action more than inaction, even when the results are the same. We are, in other words, deeply and irredeemably human.

And this is before we have added politics to the mix. Before we have taken at all seriously the impact of group dynamics, political competition, collective identities and interests, institutional structures, the rules of the game and much more that shapes, perhaps distorts, public discourse and debate.

Yet public policy – that is, decisions made by governments on behalf of (and, let it be remembered, at the expense of) their constituents – require transcending the increasingly evident human frailties associated with risk and uncertainty. We cannot discount the risk of improbable but catastrophic developments, yet even the best data and most sophisticated models have yet to provide correctives for our human frailties. The future is translucent in part because we systematically cloud the lens through which we peer at it.

The scientific community knows this all too well, and it reacts to calls for clear and unequivocal prediction with characteristic diffidence. Glaciologist Robert Thomas has observed that “most scientists don’t want to, but I think we need a way to explore the extreme end of the range of possibilities.” In the absence of scientific consensus about both the facts and their social meaning, Michael Oppenheimer, the geoscientist who directs Princeton University’s Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy points out that experts typically “give a different view of the probability of various outcomes” of climate change impacts, further confusing the general public and the policymakers who are responsible for designing responses. The continuing doubt and uncertainty regarding the science of climate change
may have been, as Corbett and Durfee suggest, “a deliberate, well-financed tactic by oil and coal companies and conservative politicians in an attempt to undermine public confidence in science and thereby defer action against global warming” but it is also a reflection of the challenge that policy making confronts in an era when frail human judgment collides with virtually unlimited information.


The Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbeleid, wrr) is an independent advisory body for Dutch government policy. The Council focuses on policy issues with long term social, economic, technological and political significance, which, as a consequence, transcend the policy domains of the various ministries. Members of the Council are highly qualified academics, appointed by the government for a period of five years. The wrr is an independent
think tank; it directs its own research programme, which is funded from the budget of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The annual wrr lecture offers policy makers and academics a high profile opportunity to discuss current policy issues with long term relevance for Dutch society. Kees Schuyt, Bruno Latour, Jan Peter Balkenende, Wim van de Donk, Anton Hemerijck.