Rain and the Wisdom of Crowds and of Insurers. And a Prize Ox.

Author: Julian Champkin

Botley Road in Oxford, UK flooded.

Botley Road in Oxford, UK flooded. Image: John Barker/Wikimedia.

The Rain it raineth every day. It does in Britain, anyway, just now. Not torrentially; it is just steady, unrelenting, not stopping, onto sodden waterlogged ground that cannot take any more. Back in April, if you can remember back that far, Britain was in drought. It isn’t now.

Lots of homes are knee-deep in water. Lots of homes will be contacting their insurers. Lot of insurers will be paying out money for the costs of new carpets, new furniture, and hotel accommodation while the whole smelly mess is cleaned up. And, more important, lots of insurers have told the government that they are not going to go on like this. Next time round they are not going to insure, or to pay.

Unless they manage to get the government to underwrite the risks – ie pay for the costs of the next crop of floods if they come - they are not going to insure certain homes against flooding. Which seems to imply that they expect more and worse flooding in future.

Unless the government - that is you and me, through taxation - forks out, lots of homes will be uninsurable. That will make them unsellable – close to worthless. The people who live in them will face cleanup costs every few years, bills for new furniture every few years, and they will have to find the money, somehow, all by themselves. This is real and heavy expense, and for hundreds of people like us it will be a real and heavy detraction from the quality of their life.

Are we seeing the first big, huge, obvious financial penalty from climate change? Who knows? The most ardent of climate change experts do not claim that these floods, or any other particular flood, hurricane, storm, typhoon, drought, hot spell, cold spell or whatever can be attributed directly to climate change. Each of these is weather, and weather day to day does its own thing. Climate is all the weather put together; and it is climate that evidence horribly strongly suggests we are changing. More fluctuating weather, more extremes of weather, is one of the things that the climate-change scientists are predicting. The current bout of weather does not contradict that prediction, and indeed fits it pretty well. More than that we cannot say. At least, I can’t.

Of course there are some who believe that climate change is a made-up fantasy. Doubtless they have reasons, some good, some less good. It is not for me here to go into the curious mindsets of the more extreme of them. And, I repeat, I am not claiming these particular floods are due to climate change. What I am claiming, with evidence, is that insurance companies are now very nervous indeed about the number and intensity of future floods in Britain. In the past they were not so nervous. They are now. They think the risk of frequent heavy floods in the future is so much greater than it used to be that they cannot afford to cover the likely costs of them at any reasonable premium that houseowners can afford to pay.

Why do the insurance companies think this? Are they any more expert at climate change than the rest of us? Not especially. All they can do, like the rest of us, is look at trends in the recent short-term, medium term and long-term past and make educated guesses about the future. The difference is, their money rides on those guesses. If they get it wrong they go bankrupt.

It is not just one insurance company that is feeling that way; it is all of them. Collectively they are running scared. If one of them differed significantly in its opinion it could offer cheap insurance against flooding, corner the market, and make an absolute fortune next year and the year after and the year after that when the rains don’t come. (Just as long as the weather stayed dry…) So does that mean that the collective bunch of insurers who are betting the other way are prize oxen?

Actually no. The reference to oxen in the title is about something else. Back in 1906 an 85-year-old gentleman by the name of Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Darwin, begetter of statistical analysis, and pretty close to engagingly bonkers, went to a fair in Devon (where it is raining just now.) There was a Guess the Weight of the Ox competition. It was a rather large ox.

Pedigree Alnwick Shorthorn bull “Sunstreak”, photographed by Sir Francis Galton

Pedigree Alnwick Shorthorn bull “Sunstreak”, photographed by Sir Francis Galton

None of the visitors to the fair, as far as we know, were particularly expert at ox-weight-guessing. Seven hundred and eighty-seven people paid their sixpence to join in, and wrote their guesses on piece of paper. Not one of them guessed the weight of the animal right.

But Galton collected up all their guesses, and added them up, and averaged them. It came to 1197 pounds. And guess what? Collectively, all those non-experts had got it exactly right. The actual weight of the ox was 1198 pounds. The average of all their guesses was as close to spot-on as anyone could ask. The wisdom of crowds, he concluded, could often get things exactly right when no individual could do it.

Are we seeing the wisdom of crowds in the collective blind panic of insurance companies? Again, who knows? I don’t, and I am not pretending to.

But ... There is always a ‘but’, and it might be an attractive one for some. If you do not believe in climate change, if you think that British weather will revert to what it always used to be in the good old days, here is a financial opportunity for you. Start up an insurance company offering cheap flood insurance for next year and the year after and the year after that. Do it now, and tout it round the poor people whose homes currently have rivers in them.

I sincerely hope you get rich. If you did, it wouldn’t tell us anything about climate change; but it would mean that lots of families will have been spared, for a few years at least, the miseries of being flooded out.

Bookmark and Share

Comment on this article

Submit your comment
  1. Image of unique ID

Skip to Main Site Navigation / Login

Site Search Form

Site Search