Do You Really Want to Know Your Future?


I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast today and heard a interesting piece which reflects my thoughts on 23 and Me

Stephen Dubner talks to people who have a rare but terribly destructive neurological disease Huntington’s. And ask if children of the disease if given the opportunity would want to know if they were also at high risk or not.

As Stephen says…

If you could take a test that could foretell your future, at least your medical future, would you? Would it be valuable for you to know if something bad was going to happen? Or would it be more valuable to not know?

My post about 23 and Me, isn’t anywhere near like this question but has similar answers…

As one of the people asked on the podcast said…

I think this is something that is horrific information, very, very powerful information. If you’re somebody who has a 50 percent risk as most people at risk around the world there is nothing, nothing whatsoever that you can do that makes any difference whatsoever, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. There’s no treatment you can take. There’s nothing to forestall it. And if we actually had something that made a difference in treatment, I think that would make a huge difference.

Or another part…

DUBNER: Well here’s what I wanted to ask you. I mean, we do know that economists think about the world differently and we appreciate that, especially on this program. I mean, we love that. On the other hand, there is this assumption among economists and within economics that people do value information and that they eschew or try to get rid of uncertainty, because economists see that uncertainty brings about bad things. But I’m just curious if the rather strong evidence that so many people embrace uncertainty in their own private lives may have changed or nuanced a little bit the way that you as an economist think about the downsides of uncertainty and maybe there is something to be said for it.

OSTER: No, absolutely I think that I have come to think that in fact for a much larger share of the population than I would have expected it seems like this preference for living with uncertainty is quite strong. And I would have said some people have that preference. It seems surprising to learn that basically, at least in this population, it’s like the vast majority of people appear to be much more interested in living with uncertainty, which isn’t something that I think would be true for me, and I would not have thought would be true for some many people.

DUBNER: And it doesn’t weaken your preference for certainty at all.

OSTER: No, I don’t think so.

The answer is very tricky and not a simple one, but we already knew that…

Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.