Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Taking risks for the data

Posted 25 Oct 2013 / 0

2013-11-Nat-Geo-CoverThe cover story of November’s National Geographic is about the death of storm chaser Tim Samaras, who was killed along with two of his collaborators (including one of his sons) during a monster tornado outside Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Samaras is one of many “explorers” supported by National Geographic, an organization that seems to be the go-to source for funding risky ventures. National Geographic is not just another magazine with features on scientific research: its mission to support exploration also means that it supports some of the most dangerous research being conducted on earth. They even seem to acknowledge this fact: a new regular feature is “survival guide”, which chronicles a new near-death experience endured by a different scientist every month.

I must admit that I have a pretty serious (and perhaps morbid) fascination with this kind of research. While what people can discover when they go to extremes is certainly exciting, what I find more interesting is the question of why people take such risks to make such discoveries. Somehow I just cannot seem to take at face value what explorers like Samaras report: “I’m going to go out collecting my data”. To me there seems to be something more than this to human risk taking.

I do not think that it is all that useful to try to characterize any population by studying its extremes. So perhaps looking at the behavior of Tim Samaras or of Dean Potter (or of any other boundary-pusher) is no way to understand the rest of us. If the genetic component of risk-taking is influenced by dozens of gene loci (and that seems probable given what a complex and emergent behavior risk-taking can be), folks like Samaras must have the risk-prone allele at every locus. This is not to say that their risk-taking is fool-hardy: it is just to say that they are willing to take very high calculated risks in order to push the boundaries of understanding and discovery.

But if such extreme individuals exist, that must say something about the human species as a whole. The Tim Samaras among us are not typical, but they are crafted from the variation we see in human populations. And while most of us clearly don’t have quite this passion for discovery, it is also clear that for such extreme individuals to exist there has to be a lot of value in maintaining some level of curiosity in the face of risk in all of us.

A Major Post, Articles, Genetics, Human Evolution, Human Nature, Human Uniqueness, Play, Risk & Uncertainty

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