The Science of Subjectivity - John C. Wunsch, P.C.
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The Science of Subjectivity

“An action taken with positive thoughts will never produce negative results.” ― Debasish Mridha

 Risk, and its acceptable level, turn on internal and external circumstances, both known and unknown. Let’s take a simple, if somewhat stylized, example to illustrate. Suppose someone presents to you the following opportunity. There are a thousand sealed boxes all of them identical and in random order. Half the boxes contain a hidden device which when opened will cause great, perhaps mortal, harm and half the boxes contain a check payable to your order for a sum of money far greater than anyone can spend in a lifetime. Do you agree to select one box knowing you have a 50% chance of not surviving?

“A really great talent finds its happiness in execution.” ––Goethe.

Subjective evaluation based on personal circumstance. Each person will evaluate this risk differently. For a young person of eighteen in good health, a 50% chance of not surviving may seem prohibitively too high, but for a person of ninety-seven, in poor health, these odds may be seen to present an opportunity to help oneself and others,­­ and thus be deemed an acceptable risk. Evaluating risk is thus personal, subjective––one size does not fit all. One would think that for both young and old the decision making process would remain the same. The same risk should be perceived and evaluated identically among those about to undertake the risk. But it’s not. What’s occurring?

“To change one's life: Begin now. Be bold. No exceptions.” ― William James

One’s assessment of a risk can best be described as a weighing between the risk undertaken and the potential outcome capable of being achieved. Each person asks in their own way: is the potential payoff great enough to justify the risk of encountering a potentially harmful consequence? Ah, the classic “risk-benefit” analysis you say, something that has been used in the social sciences (as well as caselaw) for decades. But the interesting aspect is how subjective and personal, capricious and arbitrary, is the manner by which each person evaluates a risk. It’s their projection that matters, not some pre-decided statistical formula which benchmarks ahead of time a mathematically correct method of assessment. Advancing age and ill-health work to change the assessment––for that person. And, from their vantage point, their decision can be said to be the best choice under the circumstances. 

“Have a bias towards action – let’s see something happen now. You can break that big plan into small steps and take the first step right away.” – Indira Gandhi.

It’s at this point where the statistician and mathematician will rise up to criticize a purely subjective evaluation of risk. “There are systematic ways of evaluating risk––these should not be ignored,” they will argue. “The science of statistics can provide reliable measures for evaluating risk…” They are of course correct, but there’s something to be said in support of what can best be termed the “science of subjectivity.” Subjective risk assessments are worthwhile, not because they are efficient or optimal, but because they are personal, and thus reflective of individual choice. And individual choice is valuable, in itself, as an essential aspect of a free society.  It’s the freedom to make the decision itself, without correction or coercion from others, which is an essential aspect of liberty, well worthy of our continued protection.

“You are what you do, not what you say you do.” – Carl Jung

And then there’s the famous Goldman’s Dilemma. “In the 1970s, Gabe Mirkin reported that more than half of the top runners whom he polled, would accept the following proposal: "If I could give you a pill that would make you an Olympic champion and also kill you in a year, would you take it?" This surprising result prompted Bob Goldman to ask world-class athletes in combat and power sports a similar question: "If I had a magic drug that was so fantastic that if you took it once you would win every competition you would enter from the Olympic Decathlon to the Mr Universe, for the next five years but it had one minor drawback, it would kill you five years after you took it, would you still take the drug?" He also found that more than half said they would take it. This result was consistent in his findings over a period from 1982 to 1995. Because of the shocking implications they held around doping in sport, Mirkin's and Goldman's results were widely reported, but also criticized.”

More recent research casts doubt on this 50% estimate, and confirms a more risk-adverse view. “Even with the uncertainty around the risk tolerance estimates, our results imply that very few athletes would be expected to accept a PED (Performance Enhancing Drug) in the bargain postulated by the Goldman dilemma. The range of the acceptable fatal risk suggests that athletes saw a great deal of value on winning an Olympic gold medal, but were nowhere near accepting death with certainty in the near future. In fact, the range of the acceptable fatal risks is arguably similar to risk-tolerance estimates for health benefits from various medical interventions. This, in turn, suggests that athletes attribute a value to winning that is somewhat similar to the value that patients assign to life-changing interventions.” Juan Marcos Gonzalez, F. Reed Johnson, Matthew Fedoruk, Trading Health Risks for Glory: A Reformulation of the Goldman Dilemma, Sports Medicine 48(15) (August 2018) /323495310 _Trading_Health_Risks_for_Glory_A_ Reformulation_of_the_Goldman_Dilemma

“The real measure of intelligence is action. Don’t wait because the time will never really be right. If you don’t start, you have already failed before you begin.” ― Itayi Garande.

 What’s occurring?  It has to do with the mental state of someone who knows they have the inner power to make a life-changing decision, even in the face of significant risk. That state can best be described as “limitless” or “unbounded.” “It’s too risky”––how easy it would be to caution against choosing any box. Often we hear such well-intentioned cautionary words. The simple fact, that line of a thousand sealed boxes––it’s your life: in hidden, disguised, and unforeseeable ways, you’re making similar life or death decisions every day. Since you were a child, your elders no doubt cautioned you to play it safe, to behave prudently, to be careful. We learn far too late that our subjective risk assessments are perhaps too conservative, lack daring. You’ve been presented a unique opportunity, but there’s substantial risk. A time to pause, consider your options, and then––to pick the box.

“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.” –Thomas Jefferson