Playing poker against the real world? Definitely lose-lose.

“If scientific reasoning were limited to the logical processes of arithmetic, we should not get very far in our understanding of the physical world. One might as well attempt to grasp the game of poker entirely by the use of the mathematics of probability.”

 – Vannevar Bush (1890-1974)

Here’s the reality. We’re playing trillion-dollar poker against the real world. We’re gambling on decisions and actions that we hope (fantasize might be more like it) will maintain that cheap potable water coming out of the tap; put plenty of wholesome food on the table; keep the lights on no matter how often or where we hit the switch; guard us from hazards; and protect the environment. We’re playing with money we don’t have and that we can’t afford to lose.

Worse yet, we’re playing blindfolded. Nature has turned up her cards, but we can’t see them.

More precisely, we refuse to take a look. We feel lucky. We’re content with an occasional peek.

We could be much smarter players. We could be the savvy gambler, who knows the odds, counts the cards, but realizes she’s not playing those odds, she’s playing the opponent. She builds up reserves and margin, thinks long-term, wins more than she loses. We don’t have to be the easy mark.

How? By targeting more investment across natural and social science and science-based services. There are plenty of investment prospects out there. Want to find some? Scientists and engineers gathering in Seattle over the next eight days for the AMS Annual Meeting will be putting a host of emerging technologies and insights on display. Satellite sensors, radars, lasers, and other instruments for taking the pulse of the planet, and for sensing the trace atmospheric composition that tracks fossil fuel use, damage to the ozone layer, and more. Computers and software to assimilate these data and diagnose. Innovative forecast models for making both immediate prognoses and long-range outlooks.

Two questions come to mind. First, why, when presented these in the face of these possibilities, the reluctance to invest more in knowing what the Earth will do next?

The answer is complex, but here’s one part. We haven’t made sufficient effort to formulate the value proposition and run the numbers. Just what is the value of Earth information? Quite simply, we don’t know. The private-good, proprietary piece is difficult enough to measure. But much of the knowledge and understanding of the real world is a public good (or, more properly, a mixed good). And little of that value may be monetizable. The bulk may reside in the part that transcends what can be expressed in dollars – the value in lives saved, injuries avoided, deeply held cultural values protected, comity and community fabric sustained. Fortunately, economists are beginning to make a serious run at answering these and related questions. Their work merits more support! And on an urgent basis.

In any event, because we have little idea of how many trillions of dollars we’re leaving on the table, the decision process on investments in knowledge and understanding about the Earth and Earth processes goes to a dysfunctional default: How much did we spend last year? What are the competing claims for those funds this year? (These range from the costs of wars to health care to cleaning up oil spills, rebuilding cities following natural catastrophes – many of which stem from our ignorance of Earth processes in the first place.) Most years, when we take this approach we discover that these competing claims have grown…you know the rest of the sad story.

Second, what would it cost us to do better? The short answer is, again, we’re not entirely sure – but not much. The science and services we have now are dirt cheap; let’s say $20 billion per year worldwide, give or take a factor of two. Remember, this is chump change, when we realize it allows us the privilege of running a $60 trillion/year economy on the planet. Let’s say we ramp up to double this level – not forever, but for long enough to see whether we like the results. We’re talking worldwide, but the price tag is so low that if other countries refused to go along, the United States could go it unilaterally, and position itself to capture huge world markets for US products and services. Note that this is a trial – we wouldn’t have to wait to do a cost-benefit first. We could do that analysis as we went along. A prediction? We’d find that we were recouping several times more in economic growth and environmental protection than the investment. We’re nowhere near any point of diminishing returns. That would mean that after pausing for an interval, we could double again (again for a short period, depending upon what we learn). In this way we could bootstrap our way up to a sweet spot. Accompanying economic growth would likely ensure that this investment remained unchanged as a fraction of GDP.   

At the same time, we should be ramping up our investment in the social sciences, including the economics addressing value of information. Science in another field shows the potential. Evolutionary biologists now suggest that we fight obesity today because of our history as hunter-gatherers. Food supplies were chancy, and our stone age ancestors frequently over-ate to bulk up against the dry spells when food would be scarce and hard to come by. It could well be that our reluctance to address climate change and other environmental and economic issues stems from that same history. That self-insight might help us formulate more effective policies.

In fact, it could be that we shouldn’t allow the real-world to force us to play poker at all. Pscychologists know which traits make us suited or unfit for the game. A story: when I finished my Ph.D. I moved from the University of Chicago to join the staff at Boulder’s Environmental Research Laboratories. Early on I met a bunch of atmospheric chemists. By day, they were tops in the world at laboratory measurements of atmospheric reaction rates. By night – that is, one night a week – they played poker. They invited me to join.

What a good time! Then it hit me. Poker has an inherent catch-22. If someone wants to play poker with you, chances are good you don’t want to play with them. And vice-versus. So I demurred. But blending atmospheric dynamics and atmospheric chemistry? Sweet.

Maybe instead of playing poker against the real world, we should collaborate with it. Likely better for both sides.

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