Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Paper - Rational Decision Making

Rational Decision Making:
Large Hadron Collider Scenarios

    The more humans have tried to learn about nature the more they realize how little they understand. Physicist Gary Zukhov once said that, “Physicists have ‘proved,’ rationally, that our rational ideas about the world in which we live are profoundly deficient.” As an addendum we should add that the same applies to our own minds. We have to be able to make fully rational decisions when they have long lasting impacts and consequences.

    Why would do we want to make rational decisions? The reason is that it’s often the most optimal choice. A rational decision is made by listing out the characteristics and consequences of a choice, and choosing the one we think is best. The primary issue here is figuring these characteristics and consequences out in complex large scale systems and decisions. Its easy if the system is small, for example, when grocery shopping, we have can make rational decisions based on the label and our tastes without drastic consequences, making it a good choice. However when the situation is more complex, and there isn’t a label we can check things become more difficult.

    The first obstacle in dealing with rationality is simply the lack of information, or the presence of misinformation. For example, lets take the Large Hadron Collider. There was opposition raised against it by the many doomsday scenarios that it could create. Perhaps most famously the idea that the Large Hadron Collider can create black holes that would destroy the world. Now from a physics perspective, we can realize and calculate that the black holes created will be so small that it will almost immediately evaporate due to Hawking Radiation. This is the process where the spontaneous formation and destruction of particles occur along the edge of a black hole, resulting in one particle/antiparticle exiting the black hole, and one being sucked in, reduces the mass of the black hole causing it to evaporate.

    However, Hawking Radiation as a process isn’t generally known. This is a case of the absence of information in the general public. If everyone readily knew about Hawking radiation it would be clear that this threat is not an issue. Since this isn’t the case, it can cause people to over evaluate the dangers of the Large Hadron Collider leading to an irrational risk/benefit analysis.

    Another issue linked to this scenario are the problems of anchoring and overconfidence. Many people envision a black hole as an infinitely absorbing object that just gets larger and larger at a rapid rate. This has been popularized from various science fiction movies and most people believe that a black hole is a vast absorption machines that sucks in everything around it. In reality, although its impossible to escape a black hole, it doesn’t grow as actively as it is seen in the movies. We know that there are many black holes in the universe so theres no way we could exist if they were as terrible as they are depicted in the movies. For example, if the Sun turned into a black hole, although we would notice the lack of light in 8 minutes, the orbits of the planets wouldn’t change.

    This anchoring occurred because of the way in which the human mind works. Most people's first experience with a black hole is in the form of a movie. Since it was our first experience with this object, it is the most easily recalled and anchored in our memory in that way. This anchoring is due to the availability heuristic. A heuristic is an experience based method towards problem solving. The availability heuristic is when we make a decision based on the easiest event that we can recall. In this case, its much easier to recall the vivid dramatic events in a movie, over something that can be learned in a classroom, or through scholarly articles.

    The lack of information in the general public combined with misinformation caused by the availability heuristic could easily have led government officials to make an irrational decision regarding the Large Hadron Collider to shut it down. Now we actually haven’t done extensive analysis on what the risks/benefits of the LHC are worth but this is already considered an irrational decision because it was motivated by incorrect information.

    This hypothetical situation leads us to another aspect in making rational decisions, recognizing feedback loops. There are powerful information and societal feedback loops inherent to our society. Lets say the media spreads the word for the potential of world destruction due to the Large Hadron Collider. This initial spread of information could affect people in high ranking positions in a socio political group. In this example lets take the theological example of high officials in the church. If these officials change the church’s official stance on the Large Hadron Collider the media will publicize it as one of their sources. This leads to more to more reports being made on the subject, which could reinforce the stance of the church, reinforcing the stance of the media, so on and so forth. This is an example of how even an initially incorrect or false claim can grow itself into a large multi group movement.

    The above scenarios all deal with the lack of information or misinformation and how it can spread to become a threat to rational decision making. The next case deals with how we process information. When we consider a complex project like the Large Hadron Collider, we have to take into account more the risks and benefits than just discovering the Higgs boson and the potential to create black holes. We also have to consider it as an engineering project and make decisions based on a sustainability standpoint.

    We can go through a few calculations here. It took about 4.75 billion dollars to construct the LHC, the electricity costs run about $23.5 million per year, and requires an operating budget of 1 billion dollars. This is a huge economic investment. Depending on the location this could cause huge issues, for example if the LHC was built in a rural 3rd world country so that it’d be physically out of the way from first world countries, it could devastate that locations economy as its resources gets forced into one project. Likewise we also have to consider its yearly costs, taking into account that the average cost for electricity in Europe is about 17 euro cents a kilowatt, we can calculate that the collider uses up about 150 million kilowatts a year. This is enough to power about 12,000 homes. Again this could be a huge burden on the host country for this project depending on how wealthy they originally were.

    In reality, the Large Hadron Collider was built in Switzerland which has good low emission production of electricity, and so the environmental cost in greenhouse gases for the LHC is only about 700,000 kg of CO2. Now, we can weigh this in both an economic and ethical sense. Assuming we view progress as a worthy goal we can think that these costs seem to be fairly reasonable for the possibility for completing the standard model of particle physics which leads to development in every aspect of almost all sciences. On the other hand considering the costs would this money have been better spent towards alternative energy development or medical research towards curing cancer? This are the things we have to consider in order to make the decision fully rational by obtaining the correct information and processing it in all aspects socially, economically, and ethically. So as we can see there are many different obstacles when it comes to making rational decisions. The issues range from spreading correct information to recalling appropriate information, from recognizing trends in a system, to determining what is the correct choice. However, although these topics may seem disparate, we can address them all in the same way, through education. One of the aspects of education is distributing correct information in a way which is easy to recall which addresses the first two obstacles. Recognizing trends and making appropriate choices is comparable to learning appropriate problem solving techniques, which is the other aspect of education. The last aspect of our education is in our values as a person. We have to consider whether or not our decisions are ethical and work towards a social good, which again we grow through not only our official education but simply through experiencing life. When we consider and weigh all these aspects we can then make rational decisions that benefit us all.

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