As Australians brace themselves for another bushfire season, homeowners across the country ask themselves the question: ‘should I stay and defend my property against the flames or just get the hell out?’
It’s the worst kind of dilemma; there’s only two choices (neither of which are reversible) the odds are unknown and the stakes are life and death. But thanks to a 17th century French philosopher, it’s the sort of conundrum you can solve on the back of an envelope.
Blaise Pascal wasn’t worried about fires of Summer so much as the eternal fires of hell. He didn’t believe in God, which would be fine, so long as it turned out that He didn’t exist. But if He did exist then the afterlife would be a terrible place for unbelievers like Pascal. On the other hand, he thought that believing had a huge upside (if there was a Creator) and a relatively small downside (if there wasn’t).
This technique, of comparing the Best and Worst Outcomes if I Do, with the Best and Worst Outcomes if I Don’t, is known as Pascal’s Wager, as it’s a smart bet when you’re faced with one of those awful, binary ‘Will I or Won’t I’ kind of dilemmas.
So let’s try it out with the bushfires:
1. What are the best outcomes if you stay? The fire doesn’t come your way, or if it does it’s easy to put out. You get a great story for the grandkids and some people will admire your courage.
2. What are the worst outcomes if you stay? You don’t survive to meet the grandkids. Your property is destroyed anyway. No-one admires you.
3. Best outcomes if you leave? You and your family are safe. Your property is spared. It’s still a good story for the grandkids. Everybody sees just how smart you are.
4. Worst outcomes if you leave? Everyone lives but all your material possessions are destroyed. You will start again, either here or somewhere a bit safer. All sorts of people will offer to help you out.
So to decide between ‘Stay or Leave’ is really to choose between four possible outcomes. Clearly, #3 (‘we leave and get lucky’) looks like the very best of the bunch, even though it brings with it the possibility of the second worst outcome, #4 (‘we leave but lose whatever stuff we couldn’t take with us’).
Compare that to the second best outcome, #1 (‘we stay and get lucky’) which runs the risk of #2, (‘we stay and die and lose everything anyway’) the very worst outcome of them all.
And get this: in the two worst outcomes the chances of losing everything are exactly the same (the odds of the fire hitting your property are identical whether you’re there or not) so the only decision you have to make is whether you’d rather lose it all and start again… or lose it all and die.
When you put it like that, it’s a no-brainer. And a life-saver.