Uncertainty in a Chart

The other week in economics, we made these things called cost-benefit analysis charts. Basically, they’re a comparison of the pros and cons of taking a particular action: if the pros outweigh the cons, it makes sense to take that action. If not, then it’s probably time to consider some alternatives.

I am an indecisive person. I like to pretend that it’s romantic and that I live in a land of possibilities or whatever, but the truth is that indecision can be really, really inconvenient. And boiling down decision-making to something as simple as a pro-con chart was kind of infuriating at first. It’s way more romantic to believe that the best decisions are made in the spur of the moment, when someone is “following her heart,” and bringing in cost-benefit analysis charts seemed to depersonalize and demystify decision-making, making it seem less difficult by quantifying uncertainty.

Uncertainty is a big deal. It’s like this impenetrable romantic fog hovering over everyone’s lives, because pretty much everything that we do has an element of uncertainty to it. Half (or probably more) of what makes it so romantic when Gatsby is waiting for Daisy in Nick’s living room is the uncertainty–the potential for everything to go extremely wrong or extremely right. I’m like, 99.999% sure that Gatsby did not make a cost-benefit analysis chart before asking Nick to invite Daisy over for tea, because that would have been less romantic. Right?

Cost-benefit analysis charts are just the hidden layer of decision-making, though. We naturally analyze the pros and cons of every choice we make–the chart just puts it on paper. So maybe Gatsby didn’t make a chart before going over to Nick’s (or, you know, maybe he did, because he’s Gatsby); the chart would just have reflected what he was thinking anyway. Maybe the chart would have made him seem less romantic, because he wasn’t acting only on his impulses and his love for Daisy, but maybe he would’ve thought things through and realized that Daisy would screw him over and lived a little less happily ever after instead of dying. Maybe.

But analyzing pros and cons is always going to be subjective. It’s not just about the quantity of pros and cons on each side–it’s also about the quality. So maybe Gatsby’s cost-benefit analysis chart would’ve looked something like:

Issue: Whether to reunite with Daisy.

Costs

Benefits

Incurring the wrath of Tom.

Daisy.

Affairs are messy.

Repeating the past takes a lot of hard work.

To the casual observer, it looks like the costs might outweigh the benefits–there are three of them, after all. But to Gatsby, the benefit (Daisy) outweighed the costs; not quantitatively, but qualitatively. Romanticism wins over math in this case, and the individuality of the interpretation of cost-benefit analysis charts makes them seem a little less impersonal than before. The human factor is still there, and with the human factor comes the uncertainty that makes romanticism possible.

The thing is, romanticism and math and science and economics can coexist. Human flight started out as this magical but unattainable dream–and eventually, science made it happen. You could argue that it’s not magical if you know how it works, but I would disagree with that. Flying is still flying, whether you’re the engineer who knows all about air currents and wingspan and lift or the little kid whose face is pressed up against the window as the ground falls away. Maybe it’s magical in different ways for different people, but quantifying or analyzing something in no way strips it of its appeal. (Key example: literary analysis). And seriously, science is an explanation for why the world works in the way that it does, but it involves hypotheses and experimentation and the constant questioning of almost everything. Science and math are just another means of combating uncertainty, and to me, that makes them pretty magical.

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