Irrelevant uncertainty

Suppose I asked where you want to eat lunch. Then I told you I was about to flip a coin and asked again where you want to eat lunch. Would your answer change? Probably not, but sometimes the introduction of irrelevant uncertainty does change our behavior.

In a dose-finding trial, it is often the case that a particular observation has no immediate importance to decision making. Suppose Mr. Smith’s outcome is unknown. We calculate what the next dose will be if he responds to treatment and what it will be if he does not respond. If both doses are the same, why wait to know his outcome before continuing? Some people accept this reasoning immediately, while others are quite resistant.

Not only may a patient’s outcome be irrelevant, the outcome of an entire clinical trial may be irrelevant. I heard of a¬†conversation with a drug company where a consultant asked what the company would do if their trial were successful. He then asked what they would do if it were not successful. Both answers were the same. He then asked why do the trial at all, but his question fell on deaf ears.

While it is irrational to wait to resolve irrelevant uncertainty, it is a human tendency. For example, businesses may delay a decision on some action pending the outcome of a presidential election, even if they would take the same action regardless which candidate won. I see how silly this is when other people do it, but it’s not too hard for me to think of analogous situations where I act the same way.

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