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Randomness and Risk-Taking: Dealing with Uncertainty


Anne Dalke and David Ross

Randomness and Risk-Taking:
Dealing with Uncertainty

Sept. 13, 2007
Notes towards a series of conversations about

Wanted a conversation where we can talk frankly about the work we do and the risks we take doing it, to help one another along in the process outside of established venues like departments and committees.

Peter Briggs' CSem, "Women at Risk" "examines a series of readings...which dramatize different kinds of human risk and a variety of women's responses to those risks...addresses questions of female vulnerability, the conflict of principles in crisis situations, and the sources of courage or endurance to live with risk."

We want to do what Peter's risking with his first semester students, PLUS two things

*recognize the inevitability of risk in a random (unknowable? unpredictable?) universe

* recognize the necessity of risktaking, for academics whose job (and predilection?) is to make new knowledge.

Plan for today is to frame the whole semester's conversation by noting both
the inevitability of risk and its necessity.

Its inevitability:
Nassim Taleb's book The Black Swan:
A Black Swan is
*an outlier (unpredicted/unpredictable),
*with extreme impact,
*made explainable and predictable after the fact.

Taleb uses it to illustrate
*the limits of learning from our experience
*the limits of our ability to predict
*our excessive focus on the precise and the "Platonic"
(privileging models over messier structures)
*our blindness regarding randomness.

He writes as a speculative trader, a "quant" who applied
mathematical models of uncertainty to financial data, and
developed methods for taking advantage of the improbable.

What is the valence of such ideas in the lives of academics,
whose work (on the one hand) focuses on the precise,
on what we can model, which seeks predictions based on
data gathered (& where, as elsewhere, predictions don't
get to the emotional dimensions of what it feels like
when the risk becomes personal...)?

How necessary is risk-taking in such a context?
Risk-taking is unavoidable....
[if we] understand the business of the "academic" as the generation of new understandings
...fundamental not only to good teaching but to ...scholarship....It's our business to take
intellectual perpetually question current...understandings

Some irony that such questions are being brought to you by two who are risk-avoidant
("control freaks"?), two Quakers who come from a 300-year-old tradition, which has a
testimony (for example) against gambling, which--in a search for justice and equality--
advises against risk-taking without predictable and equitable return, but insists instead
on "equivalent exchange."

Upcoming in the line-up: risk-taking in all three dimensions of
our (conventionally tri-partite) academic lives

*two new administrators talk about the risks of making change in Bryn Mawr's traditional culture;

*a social scientist and scientist talk about the risk of changing our scholarship (before & after tenure);

*two educators talk about setting up classrooms and extra-classroom spaces to maximize benefits of risk-taking.

Today (to help them think about where to focus those conversations):
find out where each of us
sees the risks, now, in the institution that is Bryn Mawr?
In our individual professional and personal lives?
In our teaching, within or outside the classroom?
How we think about risk: do we seek avoid, manage, seek out?

The biggest risk of all: trying for a conversation where we do not perform
our expertise, but talk about the edges of what we know we know...
not the declarations, but the questions.

To continue this conversation, go to the on-line forum on risk-taking.