Risk aversion and worst case scenario planning govern our lives

This is an interesting article in the Telegraph about the way that each time the government promises “freedom” from Covid restrictions then soon seem to find another reason not to in fact “grant freedom”. The goalposts keep moving. I was struck by this piece of analysis:

What seems to be going on is that every one is covering their backs. Ministers want to pass the buck to the scientists. They want to be able to say “What a triumph for our policies” if things turn out fine; and “We followed the science” if they turn out badly. The scientists don’t like being made to carry the can for what is basically a political judgment. They want to be able to say “These were only scenarios, not predictions” if things turn out fine; and “We told you so” if they turn out badly. Each group is trying to manipulate the other. Balanced assessments based on actual evidence are sadly missing.

That is – both sides are risk averse. Each side is trying to avoid being in a position where they can be accused publicly of having made a mistake. The result; the scientists produce a range of models including some at the very “pessimistic” end. This way – if the government picks a more optimistic model they can still say “well; we gave you the pessimistic model and it is the government’s fault that they chose to use the optimistic model”. And the government chooses to base policy on the worst-case model so that if things go wrong no one can say : “it was your fault; you should have used one of the more pessimistic models”. Everyone is risk averse and the public ends up with a bad outcome.

The exact same process is evident in military planning and the absurd confrontation with Russia. NATO planners produce worst-case scenarios e.g. Russia invades Latvia. Politicians, desperate to avoid some subsequent claim that they didn’t do enough, base policy on this worst-case scenario – even if in reality it has less than 0.1% probability and was only included to give a 100% complete range.

This risk-averse decision making based on worst-case scenarios is a plague of our society. Of course; the people who are so quick to accuse when mistakes are made are partly responsible for it. But the problem also reflects an absence of leadership. No one is willing to take a bold decision and “stick their neck out” -even at the (real) risk that it might go wrong and they might have to resign.

Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer