Risk and uncertainty

So you think elections, referendums and coin tosses are binary…?

Photo by Carlos ZGZI’ve argued before that we can act more constructively when we shift ourselves away from looking at things in binary terms. This is useful for managing uncertainty, describing risk, or just ensuring we don’t set ourselves up to fail. You can see some examples of things which look like black and white questions, but on closer inspection really aren’t.

How far can we push this? How far can we take an apparently either/or choice and find different measures or dimensions of variability? Let’s take a really stark choice… a single question, either/or national referendum. Brexit. Surely the outcome was always going to be one side winning, and the other side losing. Wasn’t it?

Of course, the Leave campaign won the vote, and Remain lost it. But the story doesn’t end there. Immediately there is variability over the extent of the result. The result was 52/48, and while the result is no less valid than if it was 75/25, it does influence the tone of the subsequent dialogue and the freedom with which certain parties feel they can act. Similarly, the distribution of the vote has an impact.

For example, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is intervening to influence the UK government’s approach because the nation she represents voted differently. Meanwhile a group of citizens has added further confusion by successfully bringing a legal action against the government because they intended to bypass parliament before triggering the critical act of exit. Plausibly a car manufacturer has also had an influence.

It’s likely none of this stops the UK from leaving the EU, but it does show that the nature of what happens next, and how it happens, is subject to a vast number of variables, many of which can be influenced directly or indirectly by many different people—including those outside the centre of UK politics. Winning the vote may be binary; what actually happens next is not.

While I write this polls are closing in the 2016 US election, and by the time you read it the results will be clear (probably). Clinton or Trump will have won. But the extent of their power and influence is highly variable, not least because of the acrimony expressed against them right across the country.

And is a coin toss really a binary outcome? Superficially, yes. But as we’ve seen with the referendum and the election, the consequences of what heads or tails actually results in might be managed in any number of ways.

Photo by Carlos ZGZ

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