Actuaries and Science Fiction

Brian Aldiss told me a story the other week (at the Birmingham Science Fiction Group, where he is an honorary president) about Margaret Thatcher and her attitude towards science fiction. Kingsley Amis had been invited to a party at Downing Street and had decided to take along an inscribed copy of his latest book Russian Hide and Seek. Mrs Thatcher, a little suspicious about what she was being handed, had apparently asked what it was about.

Amis had explained that it was set in the future when the UK had been under Russian occupation for 50 years.

“Can’t you do any better than that?” the Prime Minister is reported to have said. “Get yourself another crystal ball.”

Aldiss recounted this story as he felt it illustrated how Mrs Thatcher totally misunderstood what science fiction was about. It was not about prediction of the future, but for people who “liked the disorientation” (the essence of science fiction in Aldiss’s view) of portraying an unfamiliar landscape and trying to work out what would hold true under different circumstances.

It seems to me that this is also what being an actuary is about. Actuaries are not about prediction either, but they are prepared to embrace the disorientation of asking what ifs and exploring maybes, and, by so doing, try to quantify what different currently unfamiliar landscapes might look like.

Science fiction has many forms but two main camps politically: the camp which believes a more enlightened form of society is possible (although what that means might vary considerably between different campers); and the camp which doesn’t but instead believes that all we can hope to do is survive a remorseless universe governed by nothing more than the laws of physics and evolutionary biology.

I think actuaries may have leaned more towards the second of these world views, particularly in fulfilling their statutory roles in recent years. We have worked within the remorseless universe of regulators and assumed that increasingly complex systems will make us safer in a Darwinian financial world. However the group think this has inevitably promoted has made us all less safe. As a result, we have heard many voices in the discussions about the financial crisis, including many what ifs and maybes, but few of these voices have been actuaries’. To quote Bob Godfrey (admittedly he was talking about animation at the time), the professionals are in a rut and the amateurs aren’t good enough.

Actuaries need to put themselves about as much as the amateurs do. Sometimes that will be uncomfortable. Sometimes we may look a little foolish for a while. But in my view it is the only way we are going to contribute meaningfully to the construction of a better society. And we might even produce some decent science fiction in the process.

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