Wise Ignorance

Mark Huxham
February 5, 2013

‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ is good advice, particularly when it comes to the blurb; just how many books have you read that are really ‘life changing’?

My recent reading has included two that deserve the eulogies, and both touch on the subjects of ignorance and irrationality.

Poor Economics’ by Abhit Banerjee and Esther Duflo considers the lives of the ~900 million people who live on less than $1 per day.

It gives fascinating answers to questions that must have occurred to anyone working with the really poor: why are there so many half built houses in poor countries? [because that is how you save without a bank account]; why do all the shops in the village sell the same, paltry few goods? [because without capital those are the only ones you can afford to stock]; why do the poor not value education more? [they do value education, but often concentrate resources only on the ‘best’ child to the detriment of the others].

It also demonstrates something mildly uncomfortable, which is that the poor are often ignorant, irrational and believe things that are not true.

This sounds politically incorrect – don’t mention it in a grant application. But it is true for two reasons. The first is that the poor are different from the rich in that they find it harder to access and interpret many types of information – after all they have limited education and fewer reliable sources.

How does a parent make a decision about vaccinating her child against polio, when people she respects suggest the procedure might cause harm? The second reason is more important than this though, and is because in most respects the poor and the rich are the same.

In ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning author meticulously demonstrates numerous ways in which human beings, including experts in economics and psychology, act irrationally, mis-interpret evidence and learn nothing from mistakes.

The fact of human foolishness might be old news to poets and prophets but should come as a rattling blast of cold air to those economists who still believe in ‘homo economicus’ as a rational optimiser.

And it is salient to those of us in science who still hope, maybe with a certain willed naivety, that our job is merely to ‘find the facts’ (about climate change, loss of natural capital, the social impacts of inequality etc) and that rational social decisions will follow.

So what does this have to do with ecosystem services? It suggests that we need to adopt a certain canny and pragmatic humility.

Working with the poor and respecting their views is crucial, but just like most people the poor will often be ignorant about important things, especially technical ones such as flows of intangible ecosystem services.

So we need to think harder about how to educate people and invest more of our efforts in doing so.

But we also need to recognise our own ignorance, perhaps especially when tempted to use the seductively precise tools of economic modelling. We can model trade-offs between ecosystem services and design Panglossian policy scenarios in which they are optimised.

But these are not road-maps to the future, rather sketches of what might be possible.  Achieving a better tomorrow, and finding out what might work, will require us to try things out, often initially at a small scale, and to learn from our inevitable mistakes.

Professor Mark Huxam is PI of the ESPA projects Swahili Seas and CAMARV: Capacity Building for Mangrove Assessment, Restoration and Valuation in East Africa