Monday, November 24, 2008

Preventing and Mitigating Harms

With the economy in turmoil, and people fearing about losing their homes, their jobs, and their retirement savings, the question of whether a god exists or whether to have a "Christmas tree" in the public square seems somewhat trivial. In fact, many will look on a fight over such an issue like somebody being denied the last small bit of enjoyment that might be available at the moment.

So, let’s focus on these "real concerns" for a moment, and on what we can say about addressing them.

Perhaps the most important lesson to get into the public consciousness about the current situation is the need for evidence-based thinking not only to get the country out of this mess, but to reduce the chance of falling back into it in the future.

One of the main characteristics of the Bush Administration was (is) its lack of respect – its utter contempt – for evidence-based thinking. Bush believed that he did not need to study. All he needed to do was to rely on his instincts – his "gut" – to tell him what to do. Somehow, his intestines, rather than his brain, was the seat of his thinking.

We have a stark contrast between the Bush way of "thinking" and the Obama way of thinking. When the financial problems hit in September, Obama's response to the problem was to get on the phone and to start calling experts. He asked them their opinions about the economy and how best to fix it. He did not call people who based their opinions on their "guts" (or on divine revelation through prayer). He called people who had studied the subject he wanted an opinion about – who was familiar with the evidence and what the evidence implied.

In the year 1900, a hurricane hit Galveston, Texas. Six thousand people died.

This year, another hurricane hit Galveston, Texas. It literally erased whole communities, washing entire neighborhoods out to sea. About 33 people died.

The difference between 1900 and 2008 is the difference between decisions made as a result of blind ignorance and decisions made with a healthy respect for data and the ability to use the data to predict future events.

In a sense, the only thing that the people in Galveston in 1900 had available to predict the weather was their “gut” and a belief that a loving God would warn them of impending danger and care enough to try to save them. There was some news of a hurricane that hit Cuba, but no news on where he hurricane left after that. Both systems failed. The loving god was mysteriously silent – failing to give any type of reliable and easily recognizable sign that the people of Galveston should leave, And their "guts" proved poor weather predictors as well. As a result, over 6,000 people lost their lives.

Since then, people set up systems that would collect hard data on how the weather system functions, would take pictures of the Gulf of Mexico, would input data from every single hurricane into a computer which would then predict what would happen with the next hurricane, would take any errors in predictions generated with one hurricane to alter the program and make future predictions more reliable.

In 2008, the people of Galveston did not need to rely on their gut and a loving god to warn them of an impending storm. They relied on the National Hurricane Center, with eyes in space and a computer in the back room. Unlike the "loving God" of 1900, the National Hurricane Center was not mysteriously silent about the impending threat. Unlike the "loving God" of 1900, the National Hurricane Center sent out clear and unambiguous warnings of an impending storm. As a result, the National Hurricane Center proved more powerful and more capable of protecting people from harm than the loving God of 1900.

Look at the number of times that the Bush Administration was caught by surprise in his term in office in some very significant ways.

The Bush Administration was caught by surprise on 9-11, when evidence-based thinkers were warning him that Osama bin Laden was planning an attack on the United States. And when Bush heard that the attacks were under-way, he was paralyzed. His “gut” was telling him to sit there, while his nation was under attack, and do nothing but stare like a deer caught in the headlights.

The Bush Administration was caught by surprise in the discovery that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Bush's "gut" told him that the weapons were there. There was no evidence of weapons, but "guts" are better than evidence at discovering such things. Others believed in their guts that Saddam Hussein had such weapons, but others respected the notorious fallibility of guts over evidence and were waiting for the evidence.

The Bush Administration was caught by surprise when it announced that the war was over and had been won, only to see a five-year insurgency that cost over 4,000 American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead and wounded, a generation of children grow up in an environment of violence, unable to attend school or to learn the skills that would make them productive workers in the world economy. All of this happened after the Mission Accomplished banner went up. All of this was a surprise.

The Bush Administration was caught by surprise by the financial meltdown that we are currently experiencing. In thinking with its "guts", the Bush Administration was as blind to the current economic storm as the people of Galveston were to the hurricane of 1900. With some warning, and a willingness to take action, the government and the people of the United States could have braced for this storm the way that the people of Galveston were able to brace for the storm of 2008.

The Bush Administration was caught in a state of denial on the issue of global warming. By allowing this problem to go unchecked, Bush has ensured that our children and their children will face a worse state of affairs than they would have otherwise endured if an evidence-based thinker had occupied the White House.

Ultimately, the question to be answered is, "How do we best defend ourselves from these types of crises in the future?" The answer is that we need a clear respect for evidence-based thinking, the establishment of institutions that are responsible for monitoring the evidence and using it to make reliable predictions, that engage in a constant practice of checking their predictions against reality and altering their models each time reality deviates from evidence-based predictions, and improving the quality of their predictions and their response to the data over time.

I am not talking about a specific policy recommendation here. I am talking about a cultural shift. I am talking about recognizing the very real public fact that people who embrace and celebrate stupidity as a virtue bring us a future in which we or our children or their children will suffer from policies selected by those blindfolded by ignorance.

In saying this, it is important to remember that evidence-based thinkers will not always get everything right. Nor is it the case that those who found policies on ignorance and gut feelings cannot get lucky from time to time. The Galveston hurricane of 1900 did not come when people were totally ignorant of science. It simply came before scientists had developed the tools and understanding that they needed.

Similarly, when it comes to addressing the types of issues that repeatedly and destructively blind-sided the Bush Administration, it will take time to build up the tools and the understanding that will best handle those problems. It is precisely because this project will take time that it is important to start the project – to create a culture that will support the practice of doing real-world research and using that research to explain and predict real-world events.

With those who research hurricanes in the example above, each new hurricane gives a chance for another set of predictions. Every error provides an opportunity to fine-tune our understanding so that we can be more accurate from that point on. Similarly, each economic downturn gives experts in the field of economics a better understanding of how economies work, making us better equipped to weather economic storms.

What we need is sufficient cultural backing for the institution and practice of evidence-based thinking that would allow us to invest in and to respect these systems.


Burt Likko said...

I agree with you about 95%. My quibble is with saying that Bush was engaged in "gut" thinking in response to the news of the attacks on 9/11. I don't think that was gut thinking at all -- it was a panic reaction. Similarly unuseful and inappropriate, to be sure, but not the result of "going with his gut."

Sheldon said...

"When the financial problems hit in September, Obama's response to the problem was to get on the phone and to start calling experts. He asked them their opinions about the economy and how best to fix it."

Well perhaps, but as we know experts disagree. So there is always the question as to what experts should be consulted. This isn't neccessarily an ideology free decision.

I will leave it to you to critically evaluate what Chomsky has to say:

The next group of appointments were the main problem, the primary issue that the governments’ going to have to face is what to do about the financial crisis. Obama’s choices to more or less run this were Robert Rubin and Larry Summers from the Clinton--Secretaries of Treasury under Clinton. They are among the people who are substantially responsible for the crisis. One leading economist, one of the few economists who has been right all along in predicting what’s happening, Dean Baker, pointed out that selecting them is like selecting Osama Bin Laden to run the war on terror.


Yeah, I’ll finish. This saves me the problem of what’s coming next, so I’ll finish with the elections. Let me make one final comment on this. There was meeting on November 7, I think of a group of couple, of a dozen advisers to deal with the financial crisis. Their careers were, records were reviewed in the business press, and Bloomberg News had an article reviewing their records and concluded that these people, most of these people shouldn’t be giving advice about the economy. They should be given subpoenas.


Because most of them were involved in one or other form of financial fraud, that includes Rahm Emanuel, for example. What reason is there to think that the people who brought this crisis about are some how going to fix it? Well, that’s a good indication of what’s likely to come next, at least if we look at actions.

Sheldon said...

"The Bush Administration was caught by surprise in the discovery that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Bush's "gut" told him that the weapons were there."

You actually give the Bush administration too much moral credit by ignoring evidence that suggests that they actually knew the weapons in question were not there. They probably knew they were not there. One source among many for this inference is from Ron Suskind's recent book The Way of the World.