In the film Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, a memorable exchange occurs between the loveable rogue Han Solo and the protocol droid C3PO. The ensemble of heroes, chased by the dastardly villains, are faced with an asteroid field. They are understandably scared. Trying to be helpful, C3PO informs the pilot of their ship, Han Solo, that the chances of getting through the asteroid field intact are a million-to-one! And how does Han Solo respond? He quips, never tell me the odds! And proceeds to direct the ship successfully through the asteroid field. This may be interpreted merely as an interplay which increases tension and was inserted by the script writer for that reason. However, it appears that “Han Solo thinking” is prevalent in parts of European society. We see this on both sides of the Brexit debate, and on other European ills such as our falling behind in the technological race, or our approach to the climate.
Unfortunately, in real-life, something that has a million-to-one chance of occurring will in the long term approximate that rate of occurrence. One might argue against the numbers and say that it’s not a million-to-one, but merely a thousand-to-one. That may be a valid argument to make. The numbers often depend on premises which may be false or outdated. And if it is a thousand-to-one occurrence, it may merit a different response to guard against it happening, compared to a less likely possibility.
However, ignoring the numbers entirely is the pitfall. Appealing to the past, or ignoring how different the future can be to the present are dangerous.
It's not cinema
In cinematic terms, we can also see this as a masterful character development scene. It demonstrates Han Solo’s daring personality and his talents. The comic relief of C3PO with his pedantic attitude is further established. George Lucas, who wrote the story for Star Wars V, knew it would serve him well later in the story (or earlier, for that matter).
But why did George Lucas decide to include this? The outcome of our heroes’ entry into the asteroid field was pretedermined by George Lucas himself. There was no doubt that Han Solo would succeed, because Lucas wrote the story, and Lucas wrote a story where the heroes succeed.
However, Lucas understood that we have an aversion to “numbers games”. We want a narrative, we need a narrative. Resistance, talent and daring overcoming adversity, these are our bread and butter. If we overcome adversity by calculating probabilities, looking at the odds, our resources and our opponents’ resources, it doesn’t quite have the same impact as a daring individual effort.
Indeed, for almost all of humanity’s history, we did not have an evidence base from which to make decisions. We could not judge whether one course of action was better than the other, to achieve a particular goal, based on evidence. The complexity of goals was less. The tools, very different.
Rhetoric versus reality
Thus, it fell to rhetoric to guide our choices. We see this in the Brexit debate. Both sides manipulate rhetoric to frame the decision as resistance and independence (the Leave side) or the sensible choice of community and reason (the Remain side).
There is a difference between the European laws and regulations that frame life in Britain now and the ones that would hold in a no-deal scenario. We know what the difference would be in many areas. We cannot calculate what political or economic effect the difference will have with certainty, but we know they will have a short-term effect (which will be different from the long-term effect). Ignoring that effect is very different to acknowledging it. One can acknowledge it and still consider No Deal the best option for the goals one has set.
There is a similar issue with Europe’s declining technological competitiveness. We know that the European Commission is going to grant 10,000 million euros over the next few years to boost our technological competitiveness. We also know that the US government will grant 10,000 million dollars in a single contract to a single company for research on AI (although the identity of the company is disputed). We know that we, as Europe, are not spending enough for research and development. And we are aware that we lack companies in the new fields of data and AI. Using Han Solo thinking and asserting that things will be fine and we will not lag behind is dangerous. Especially when such thinking informs our actions.
Note how critical it is to state that we aim to judge courses of action for a particular goal. It may be that no-deal is the best course of action for the goal someone wants to achieve, for the society that someone would like to live in. It may be that someone is content for Europe to lag behind technologically even with the risks such a course of action would pose. However, is Han Solo thinking the best way to approach Europe’s technological deficiencies or the options for Brexit? It is better to walk into any course of action with eyes open, with the odds (however imperfect they are) on the table. C3PO would approve.
Crédit photo: Markos Loizou