Posts filed under ‘Science’

Down Syndrome and Decision Theory

I have a wonderful 11-month-old daughter, who thankfully is entirely healthy. During the pregnancy, my wife and I were of course worried about the possibility of a congenital defect, of which the most prominent is Down Syndrome. Today, couples must make a series of complex decisions — whether to have a screening test for Down Syndrome, whether (based on its result) to have a more risky diagnostic test, and of course, what to do if the final result is that the fetus has Down Syndrome. These decisions depend on moral judgements, on various facts regarding the nature of the fetus at various ages, regarding the nature of Down Syndrome, and regarding the reliability and dangers of the tests, and finally, on the proper way to use this information to make a decision.

This last aspect is in the domain of decision theory, and will be the main focus of this post. Decision theory purports to show how a decision-maker should use the probabilities of the various possible outcomes along with their personal “utilities” for these outcomes to make a rational decision, which maximizes their expected utility. The validity of decision theory as a guide to rational action has often been challenged. The Allais Paradox describes one situation where decision theory does not accord with the judgements of many people, and some argue that the fault is not with these people, but rather with decision theory. Interestingly, Down Syndrome testing involves an analogue of the Allais Paradox. (more…)

2008-09-07 at 1:06 pm 21 comments


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