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SCIENCE SALON # 116

Michael Shermer with Howard Steven Friedman — Ultimate Price: The Value We Place on Life

How much is a human life worth? Individuals, families, companies, and governments routinely place a price on human life. The calculations that underlie these price tags are often buried in technical language, yet they influence our economy, laws, behaviors, policies, health, and safety. These price tags are often unfair, infused as they are with gender, racial, national, and cultural biases that often result in valuing the lives of the young more than the old, the rich more than the poor, whites more than blacks, Americans more than foreigners, and relatives more than strangers. This is critical since undervalued lives are left less-protected and more exposed to risk.

Howard Steven Friedman explains in simple terms how economists and data scientists at corporations, regulatory agencies, and insurance companies develop and use these price tags and points a spotlight at their logical flaws and limitations. He then forcefully argues against the rampant unfairness in the system. Readers will be enlightened, shocked, and, ultimately, empowered to confront the price tags we assign to human lives and understand why such calculations matter. Friedman and Shermer also discuss:

  • the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic tradeoffs in the context of putting a price on human life
  • how long should the economy be kept shut down in social isolation
  • private vs. public calculations of the value of a human life
  • the tradeoffs between conflicting moral values related to the value of human life (abortion, capital punishment, etc.)
  • 9/11 and the calculations used to determine the value of each life lost
  • calculating the devil we know (coal-related deaths) vs. the devil we don’t know (possible future nuclear-power related deaths)
  • how the price of $10 million was determined for the current value of a human life
  • organ sales as a form of human life valuation
  • Should you have life insurance?
  • When should you start collecting social security?
  • why all lives should be treated equally in terms of statistical valuation, but why they are not.

Howard Steven Friedman, a leading statistician and health economist, is an expert in data science and applications of cost-benefit analysis. He teaches at Columbia University.

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