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What The Martian teaches us about the value of a statistical life

David Evans's picture

This weekend, the movie The Martian opens. It’s based on a book by Andy Weir, the most exciting one I’ve read this year. In the very near future, a mechanical engineer and botanist turned astronaut named Mark Watney gets marooned on Mars, with little hope that he can survive long enough for a rescue team to reach him. The narrative proceeds on two paths, with Mark showing amazing resourcefulness to extend his survival on a barren planet, and the U.S. National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) at home, scrambling to come up with a plan to save him.

The Martian | Official Trailer

At one point, Mark ponders a big question: “The cost for my survival must have been hundreds of millions of dollars. All to save one dorky botanist. Why bother?” (He gives an answer, but I’m pretty sure it’s wrong.)

The Martian, bookThroughout the book, I pondered the same question. The researchers at estimate that you can save a life through a long-lasting insecticide-treated mosquito net for $3,340. A program of community health promoters in East Africa is estimated to save a child’s life for $4,400. By those estimates, instead of saving Mark Watney (and let’s assume that it cost just $100 million), NASA could have saved almost 30,000 people with mosquito nets or almost 23,000 children through community health promoters.

Beyond the requirements of a thrilling piece of science fiction, why would we make that choice?

I encountered a clear explanation in Richard Thaler’s memoir cum behavioral economics text, Misbehaving. Thaler first shares a passage by Nobel prize winner Thomas Schelling:

Misbehaving, bookLet a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths – not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.

Thaler goes on to explain:

The hospitals stand in for the concept Schelling calls a “statistical life,” as opposed to the girl, who represents an “identified life.” We occasionally run into examples of identified lives at risk in the real world, such as the thrilling rescue of trapped miners. As Schelling notes, we rarely allow any identified life to be extinguished solely for the lack of money. But of course thousands of “unidentified” people die every day for lack of simple things like mosquito nets, vaccines, or clean water.

 RashidaIn The Martian, Mark Watney is an identified life, so people are willing to put massive resources into saving him. But in our international development work, we often rely on statistical lives. We talk about more than 4,000 women who could die because of increased maternal mortality in Ebola-affected countries or almost 10,000 orphans created by a disaster. It’s no wonder that UNICEF is the most effective international organization on Twitter, with 30% more retweets than the next most effective organization. It emphasizes individual children, like Rashida. (That’s just an example, for – as UNICEF Sweden put it in this brilliant video – “likes don’t save lives” and neither do retweets.)

Bruce Wydick and Heather Lanthorn have written previously about the value of using narratives rather than just statistics, as well as how to responsibly choose individuals with “median impact” to highlight: In other words, we shouldn’t just highlight the one person who really succeeded as the result of a development program, but rather we should highlight someone who succeeded (or not) closer to the average participant. (Wydick gives a technical demonstration of how to select such a participant and incorporate their story into a quantitative paper in his article on shoe distribution in El Salvador.)

Collecting narratives responsibly and finding spaces to share them adds work to projects, but it may well be worthwhile work. Making the poorest individuals “identified” instead of just “statistics,” giving them names and histories and aspirations, may be crucial to securing the engagement and the resources to move toward the elimination of extreme poverty. Perhaps it’s how we go from saving the one fictional astronaut marooned on Mars to the 30,000 real people at risk of dying from malaria.

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The Martian film trailer by Twentieth Century Fox
Book cover of The Martian by Crown Publishers
Book cover of Misbehaving by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Submitted by Sunita on

Thank you David for this nice blog. I agree that we connect so much more at the personal level with people than with numbers. But the downfall is that these personal stories are sometimes seen as anecdotal rather than the representation of developmental challenges.

Submitted by Huanhuan on

This is not about money,this is about life. When Mark was facing life survive, we should save him instead of thinking about the money he cost can save so many children. Otherwise, he belongs to his family. If we gave up, there will be a sadness in his family.

Submitted by tshepo on

Thank you David. I agree, I believe this can help solve the problem we are faced with in SA for free higher education for all.

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