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Published in: Society 1/2021

03-05-2021 | BOOK REVIEW

John Kay and Mervyn King: Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an Unknowable Future

The Bridge Street Press, 2020. 528 pp., ISBN: 978-1408712603

Author: Quassim Cassam

Published in: Society | Issue 1/2021

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Excerpt

In early 2011, President Obama faced one of the defining decisions of his presidency when the CIA shared with him a possible lead about the location of Osama bin Laden. US intelligence had identified a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that was occupied by the family of bin Laden’s courier and two other families. The house was unusually secure, and its occupants went to extraordinary lengths to conceal their identities. When a surveillance drone spotted a tall man taking regular walks under the cover of trees in the garden, the CIA concluded that the Pacer, as they called him, was probably bin Laden. One analyst was 95% certain. Others were less confident and gave estimates ranging from 40 to 80%. Obama cut short a discussion of the merits of different estimates by observing “This is 50-50. Look guys, this is the flip of a coin” (p. 8). He could not base his decision on the notion that there was any greater certainty than that. …

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Footnotes
1
Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty and Profit (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1921); John Maynard Keynes The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (London: Macmillan and Co., 1936)
 
2
Milton Friedman, Price Theory (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1962)
 
3
For a more sympathetic account of the use of Bayesian reasoning in the world of intelligence, see David Omand, How Spies Think: Ten Lessons in Intelligence (London: Viking, 2020).
 
4
Obama’s own account of his thinking about the Abbottabad raid is worth reading in the light of Kay and King’s discussion. See his A Promised Land (London: Viking, 2020), chapter 27.
 
5
Walter R. Fischer, Human Communication as Narration: Towards a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987)
 
6
Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1969)
 
Metadata
Title
John Kay and Mervyn King: Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an Unknowable Future
The Bridge Street Press, 2020. 528 pp., ISBN: 978-1408712603
Author
Quassim Cassam
Publication date
03-05-2021
Publisher
Springer US
Published in
Society / Issue 1/2021
Print ISSN: 0147-2011
Electronic ISSN: 1936-4725
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-021-00572-0

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