Philosophy and Bicycle Helmets

Friday, October 4, 2019
by Leslie Tierstein
Blaise Pascal, a 17th century French author, wrote a book of essays. One of the most famous (it has its own Wikipedia article) is “The Bet”. (Ok, usually translated as “The Wager”, but I prefer the more colloquial “bet”.) Every time I think of “The Bet” I think of how Pascal’s argument and conclusion can be applied to the discussions of whether to wear a bicycle helmet.
“The Bet” is, basically and a bit simplistically, about the existence or non-existence of God, and which side you should bet on (in terms of your behavior). According to Pascal, there’s no way to prove whether God exists or doesn’t exist. If God exists, however, and you behave morally, you will get an infinite reward, via an afterlife in heaven. If God exists and you behave immorally, you get an infinite punishment, in hell. Therefore, even if the odds are slim, you should behave as if God exists, because of the potential pay-off. The Wikipedia article ( ) has a great discussion about how “The Wager” is actually the “first formal use of decision theory”. The decision matrix boils down to:
So, how does this apply to bike riding and helmet use? There may be a very low probability that you’ll ever be involved in a bicycle crash where a helmet would save your brain or save your life – it wouldn’t help, for example, if your body was pinned to a tree by a car speeding 75 mph. And wearing a helmet would be equally irrelevant if you were never involved in a crash or fell off your bike. However, there is infinite (as far as you’re concerned) gain if you ARE involved in such a crash AND are wearing helmet (you maintain your life and brain function) and infinite loss if you are involved in such a crash and are not wearing a helmet.
Therefore, I will try to religiously [sic] wear a helmet. I have even bought a folding helmet that’s easier to schlep around with my folding bike or when using a CABI. 

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