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‘Predictions of future danger’: A Catholic response to risk awareness in the modern world

Paul Scherz.

In the last decade or two, much ink has been spilled on the risks associated with advancing technology, from the increase in anxiety and depression among teens to concerns over ethics and autonomy surrounding artificial intelligence.

Risks are all around us. But how should Catholics respond to increasing awareness of risk in the modern world?

Paul Scherz, associate professor of moral theology at The Catholic University of America, has spent years thinking about the concept of risk awareness and its implications in contemporary society.

In his recent book, “Tomorrow’s Troubles: Risk, Anxiety, and Prudence in an Age of Algorithmic Governance,” he reflects on risks, technology, algorithms, and the Christian call to trust.

Charles Camosy spoke with Scherz about risks and the anxiety that they can produce, as well as ways to be prudent in analyzing risks - both as a society and as individuals.

How did you become interested in the topic of risk? Why and how did it lead to a book on this topic?

My interest in risk arose out of my work in genetics. Before I started studying moral theology, I spent several years as a researcher in genetics. Over the course of my research career, I noticed that there was a gradual turn in the field away from finding cures for disease (although that is still a major emphasis) towards predicting the risk of future disease.

Think of people who get their DNA sequenced by a direct-to-consumer genetics company like 23andMe. What they get, in part, is a list of risks – you have a 2% increased risk of colon cancer, a 5% decreased risk of diabetes, and so on. More and more, risk prediction is what the field of genetics focuses on.

Knowledge of these risks can lead to quite dramatic actions, like women with genetic risks for breast cancer having prophylactic double mastectomies. If no preventive action can be taken, as with genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease, then people are left with heightened anxiety.

Seeing this changing terrain pushed me to ask how a Christian should navigate their increased knowledge of risk. As frequently happens, what started as a very focused project on genetic risk gradually expanded.

First, I noticed that a lot of medical care in general sought to control risk factors for diseases that aren’t themselves diseases, like high cholesterol or elevated blood pressure. From there, I started to see risk analysis everywhere. The financial system is based on the management of risk; insurance guards against risk; public policy is a balancing of risks; ecology is based on risk modeling; even social media depends on statistical prediction of user behavior.

We live in a risk society, as many sociologists have noted. Given the little theological work on risk, I felt compelled to write a book that begins to wrestle with the question of how Christians should engage these predictions of future danger.

At the risk of offering a cliche, I wonder how you see the reading of the signs of the times today. Obviously at earlier points in our species' history we were, in a very real sense, much more at risk than we are today. How do you view risk in our current moment?

You’re right that humans have always had to mitigate dangers. What is unique are the tools that we have today, like probability theory and statistics, that allow us to specifically and quantitatively predict the future. These mathematical tools have revolutionized our ability to model the future. Because of their relative novelty, there are few theological sources to draw on to address them. Risk just didn’t exist in the same way for Thomas Aquinas or Augustine.

There is no doubt that our tools for risk analysis have been tremendously beneficial, helping to solve problems of disease, famine, business crashes, etc. Yet, as with any good thing, problems arise when it is taken too far. Pragmatically, our efforts to mitigate any single risk can cause side effects and other risks. For example, school closures may have slowed the risk of Covid-19 spread and death, but they led to disastrous effects on school children, increasing the risk that many of them will drop out of school altogether.

Second, more psychologically, these tools can lead to overconfidence in our ability to control risk. One of the many things that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis was the belief that analytic tools had mastered the risk of financial loss. That confidence in risk management led to an overly leveraged system that collapsed when the unexpected occurred.

Finally, we now have a politics dominated by controlling risks (of economic disaster, of disease, of immigration, of climate change) with little agreement on which risks to prioritize. We have a politics of fear rather than a politics that pursues human goods.

The Gospels and our Catholic tradition have a great deal to say about our approach to risk, though this topic rarely gets discussed in a theological context. Your book makes the case that there is a theological problem with being overly concerned about risk. What is that theological problem?

Part of the inspiration for my project is the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, which contains an extended discussion of the fear of the future. That of course is where my title comes from: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own” (Mt. 6:34 NRSV). Jesus tells us not to worry because we can depend on God. That does not mean that we will avoid all suffering, because we will all bear our crosses, but we can depend on God to support us and ultimately bring good out of our well-intentioned actions.

As risk shapes our everyday practical reasoning, though, it can threaten this trust. People in contemporary culture tend to obsess over dangers, which can lead to us attempting to ground our ultimate security in our own actions. This is impossible. No one and no society can prevent all dangers. As we try, though, we can become distracted from our true good, enveloped by anxiety about future dangers. It is no surprise, given the seething anxieties of contemporary life, that Pope John Paul II, as well as Pope Francis, spent so much of their teaching on the theme of not being afraid.

But let's get real. Don't we have to be concerned about risk in some way?

We are getting over a global pandemic. Mere use of the internet and smartphones, especially by young people, has tons of risk associated with it. More and numerous and complex economic choices (both as individuals and as communities) carry with them significant risk. Heck, even deciding where to send one's kids to school these days involves significant risks.

Doesn't the virtue of prudence demand that we be concerned about risk?

True – not fearing for tomorrow must be balanced by a sense of due care for the people and things for which we are responsible: our families, jobs, societies. The Book of Proverbs, for example, contains a lot of prudential advice. On these fronts, the introduction of risk analysis has done tremendous good. Risk analysis is especially important at a governmental level when introducing new medicines or technologies or starting new large projects. We also need, as a society, to confront risks of emerging diseases or natural disasters.

My concern is that we can become overconfident in these tools or allow them to invade our private lives. Many people are being trained to apply these kinds of managerial tools to daily life, which I think are undermining some of our relationships, which are never absolutely secure. Finding the right balance in the face of future danger is a difficult problem, which I try to provide tools for in the book.

Let's talk more about social structures. Walk us through how you think predictive risk analysis shapes our politics and social institutions in ways that address these questions.

Risk analysis is everywhere in our social institutions – finance, policy-making, healthcare. One aspect that I think is relatively new and that I focus on in the book is the growing role of surveillance, data, and artificial intelligence (AI) in our social institutions.

By AI, I don’t mean HAL or Skynet, sci-fi examples of actually conscious machines, but rather the basic algorithms that run everything from social media to financial transactions. These machines operate by making predictions; they churn through the massive amounts of data that exists on the internet, discover statistical patterns, and then use these patterns to predict the future.

By predicting how a person will act under different circumstances, corporations and social institutions try to gain control over that person’s actions. For example, by knowing what you have watched in the past, YouTube or TikTok can arrange your watchlist in a way that maximizes your time on the site. Governments try to determine the circumstances that will allow them to nudge you toward preferred actions.

These technologies try to reduce the risks of unconstrained human action by channeling people into the paths that institutions want. Sometimes these tools serve unobjectionable ends, with governments trying to get people to eat vegetables or invest in retirement. At other times, these predictive systems are very dangerous though, as with the addictive algorithms that one finds in some games or social media sites.

More broadly, I think this method of predictive control embodies a deeply problematic vision of the human person, one that attempts to undermine our freedom by predicting and controlling our actions. That’s why it is so important to present an alternative, Catholic understanding of the person and her relation to the future that can affect the implementation of these predictive systems. As a society, we need to ensure that they protect human freedom and serve genuine goods.