Whose Life Is It Anyway?

We now know that the 5 adventurers who went underneath the Atlantic Ocean’s surface to explore the Titanic have died. By about Tuesday, I had figured they were dead but I held out hope.

Unfortunately, various people have tweeted nasty comments and gone after OceanGate’s CEO Stockton Rush (who is one of the 5 dead) for taking excessive risk.

One of the worst is someone named Alexandre Erin, who said.

Here’s a reason I’m a pro-mockery of the OceanGate fiasco: that whole “regulations stifle innovation” thing that crops up in their PR to present the whole “untested and unlicensed” thing as a feature rather than a bug: people who want us eating heavy metals for breakfast say that.

So she mocks them because they use an argument that “people who want us eating heavy metals for breakfast” use. I can’t vouch for or against her claim; I don’t know anyone who wants me eating heavy metals for breakfast; maybe that’s because I travel in a smaller circle than she does.

But even if there are such people, that doesn’t mean that everyone who argues for using something that is “untested and unlicensed” is wrong. Every innovation was, at some point, unlicensed and untested.

Indeed, in this case, they were testing it. Do I think it would have been better to send Titan down a number of times before having people in it? Yes. But that reflects my preferences about risk; I’m quite cautious and won’t even try scuba diving. But different people have different preferences for risk.

Consider people who try to climb K2, which is much more dangerous than Mount Everest. As of March 2019, there were 355 ascents of K2—and 82 deaths. So deaths as a percent of summits were 23 percent. Now that’s risky.

Would Erin mock those people too? There is one major difference between the two activities. We are unlikely to get much innovation out of people climbing K2, although you never know. We have a much higher chance of getting valuable innovation out of people doing what OceanGate is doing.

I do think that, as Christian Britschgi of Reason pointed out, we taxpayers should not be on the hook for the resources put into tracking Titan with the goal of rescuing the occupants. I would bet that the various operations have already cost millions of dollars. You might argue that much of this was good training for other things that taxpayers should pay for. You might. But I’m skeptical.