18 October 1999
Government Actuarys Department
London WC2B 6LE.
Genetics and Insurance
Thank you very much for your letter dated 12 October. I will await the revised version of the statement with interest.
For the moment I would like to comment on just one aspect of your letter: "Ignoring only bad genetic test results is fine, so long as society demands this degree of risk pooling and accepts the implied costs for all." I have two comments on this.
First, I do not think this message comes across in the statement.
Second, what society demands or accepts can in practice be influenced by what is said by apparent experts (such as actuaries) who make (wholly spurious) claims that they have a professional expertise or "science" which tells society what it should do. Actuaries do this all the time, almost always for the purpose of promoting the interests of insurance companies and people who are well, and harming the interests of people who are sick (or in this case, genetically disadvantaged). It is this which leads me, reluctantly and sadly, to the conclusion that the influence of actuaries is generally malign. The enclosed letter [reproduced below] expounds this in a little more detail.
Once again, thank you very much for your reply.
Yours sincerely, RG Thomas
Enclosure with letter dated 18 October 1999 to the Government Actuary
Letter to John Lockyer, original dated 8 June 1998
J Lockyer Esq
Swiss Reinsurance Co UK Ltd
Swiss Re House
71-77 Leadenhall Street
London EC3A 2PQ.
Life insurance,human genetics, and science
I was very interested to read your paper for the forthcoming International Congress. Unfortunately I am not going to be able to attend the Congress and so I am writing to comment briefly on one aspect, namely the reference to the views of "Moultrie & Thomas".
If I understand it correctly, the paper characterises our views as being an example of a belief that concepts of justice should take precedence over scientific principles. This is probably one of the more polite things that might be said about us! But my actual views are not that justice should take precedence over scientific principles, but rather that the appeal to "scientific principles" as a justification for insurance practice is spurious in the first place.
The essence of science is that it is positive, and not normative. Science tells us nothing about how insurance (or any other endeavour) should be organised; it only predicts what is likely to happen if we do organise it in particular ways.
I can illustrate this point with two examples from very different fields. The science of aeronautics does not tell us how we should build an aeroplane; it only predicts that certain designs will fly and others won't. In this example, it is fairly easy for all to agree that we should build the aeroplane in a way that allows it to fly, and the distinction I am making is pedantic (but nevertheless valid).
At the other end of the spectrum, the science of eugenics does not tell us that we should sterilise or murder sick and disabled people; it only predicts how the health of the population may change if we do. In this example, the distinction I am making is not pedantic, it is quite crucial.
In terms of its moral implications, insurance lies somewhere between these two examples. But the claim that scientific principles dictate that insurance should be organised in any particular way misconstrues the essential nature of science. (The same misinterpretation has, of course, been used in the past as a (spurious) justification for eugenics and much else besides.)
I said above that but there is also a sense in insurance lay somewhere between the examples of aeronautics and eugenics,which it is fundamentally different from both. This is that insurance is a social science, not a physical or biological science.
The point of this distinction is that in a physical science such as aeronautics, predictions have no influence on outcomes: predicting that the aeroplane will or won't fly has no effect on its actual performance. In a social science such as insurance, however, the act of prediction may well influence actual outcomes.
For example, if an elite of well-qualified people endlessly raises public alarm about adverse selection, and tirelessly predicts that the healthy will (or even should) be unwilling to subsidise the sick etc. etc., their actions make it more likely that these problems will actually occur. This is the role chosen by much of the actuarial profession and it means, sadly, that the influence of the actuarial profession upon the lives of sick and disabled people in aggregate is unambiguously malign. (I accept that this is not the intention, but it is usually the effect.)
I hope you have an interesting discussion of your paper at the Congress.
With best wishes.
Yours sincerely, R G Thomas