That Precautionary Principle

October 10, 2018

football

Long ago, when it was still acceptable to voice doubts about computer projections of the climate apocalypse, people often answered critics who mentioned the uncertainty in the predictions by citing “The Precautionary Principle.”  This self-evident axiom of risk management means that if the consequences of a low-risk, uncertain event are so catastrophically awful, we are prudent to act as though the event will happen.  So, even if the predictions about climate change are not very certain, the impacts on us if they turn out to be true are so horrific, we might as well not argue, and just assume that they are correct.  Case closed.

When I first began to track the issues related to climate change more than twenty-five years ago, that was pretty much my point of view, but after a lot of thought, discussion, and experiences at conferences, I have modified my view to one of rather harsh skepticism.  I’m not going to discuss that process here:  I just want to dispose of this supposedly common sense precautionary principle (PP).

First, a little story:  My sister has an old friend that she has known for many years who suffered significant brain damage a long time ago when he fell and struck his head.  He is severely impaired these days, as though he had been the victim of a stroke.  He was quite robust and healthy when it happened; he just slipped on the ice one winter and banged his skull.  A fluke accident with terrible consequences.  Could happen to anyone, right?

Now, this sad event the befell my sister’s friend was forseeable.  After all, everyone knows that you can slip and fall on the ice, and many of us have done it, although with consequences that ranged more towards embarrassment than disability…but it could happen to us, even if we are not old and frail.  It happened to my sister’s friend!  The chances are not zero.  If you do research on it, you might find that they are not even considered trivial, so this is my question.  Given that the consequences of this accident, with a probability notably above zero, are so life-shattering, why don’t we all walk around wearing football helmets in the winter when there is ice on the ground?  It would seem to be a perfect and unassailable application of the precautionary principle.

The reason that we don’t wear helmets is that we all make our own calculations, knowingly or not, and assume that the risk is so vanishingly small that we need not worry about such a “fluke” happening to us.  We are totally unpersuaded by the logic of the PP.  Some people are so foolish as to never wear seat belts despite the much stronger statistical evidence in their favor.  We might think those people are nuts, but still not don the helmet in icy weather.

In the end, we are left with nothing but data, and our judgment about how powerful a case it makes for taking action.  The PP is simply a way of trying to shut down consideration of the data and the possible courses of action by asserting that only one alternative is possible and logical, but in practice, nobody reasons that way when they actually have to make a choice.

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Maps in the News!

March 21, 2011

The grid of streets in Manhattan is celebrating its 200th birthday this week.  The urban grid itself has a much longer history than that, of course, going back at least as far as the Greek settlement in Turkey at Miletus.

Evacuation zones are on the minds of many who are watching developments at the Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan:  A map of similar zones for NJ was published in several newspapers recently.  An article in today’s Times indicates that these cartographies of danger are more fantasy than reality.  Not in the sense that the dangers are not real, but in that the ‘plans’ associated with the maps are infeasible.

Which leads me back to a more benign example of zones of influence that is similar in form, but different in intent from these buffer zones of horror – personal space.

her fame had spread itself to the very out-edge and circumference of that circle of importance, of which kind every soul living, whether he has shirt on his back or no,-has one surrounding him…But I must here, once for all, inform you, that all this will be more exactly delineated and explained in a map, now in the hands of the engraver, which with many other pieces and developments of this work,will be added to the end of the twentieth volume

from The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne


Play the odds

January 4, 2010

David Brooks, the columnist I love to hate, wrote on New Years Day about the failed bomb attack on the Northwest Air jet:

…we seem to expect perfection from government and then throw temper tantrums when it is not achieved. We seem to be in the position of young adolescents — who believe mommy and daddy can take care of everything, and then grow angry and cynical when it becomes clear they can’t.

…  But, of course, the system is bound to fail sometimes. Reality is unpredictable, and no amount of computer technology is going to change that. Bureaucracies are always blind because they convert the rich flow of personalities and events into crude notations that can be filed and collated. Human institutions are always going to miss crucial clues because the information in the universe is infinite and events do not conform to algorithmic regularity. [link]

I happen to agree with him on this, and I think our social conceptions of risk are way off.  I don’t think, however, that this case is a good example of that.  A decent system should have caught that guy.  Oh well, easy for me to say in hindsight, right?  Absolutely. 

I think Brooks’ column is barking up the wrong tree.  It is so hard to make a large organization function well, and to allow the full power of individual human intelligence to be brought to bear on problems.  Organizations that handle information, quickly become, as you move up the chain, detached and mechanical in their procedures.  How can they not?  There’s all that paper, all those calls, all those lists to go through!!  Has it always been so?  Did Assyrian bureaucrats miss vital clues on food supply and impending invasions?  Did they loose their heads because of it, literally that is?

But Brooks is wrong because he doesn’t say why it is so hard to do right.  He just seems to accept it as a fact of nature – the odds are stacked against the system.  It’s hard because it goes against such entrenched political interests.  Turf wars, egos, prestige, the usual culprits.  He seems to have the attitude that, in principal, the systems are being reformed correctly, and that that their failure is an inevitable “wastage” that we must expect.  I doubt that the efforts have even scratched the surface of what should be done, and I haven’t the foggiest notion of what should be done to change it.  So maybe we agree after all?


How safe is safe enough?

November 20, 2009

  

We don’t do very well at dealing with risk and uncertainty. Maybe because it’s so darn scary!  Risk means danger, and uncertainty only adds to our fear, even if the risk, as a quantitative value, is very small!  Here we have an example of small risks attacked with big solutions that cost lots of money!

The marvelous water supply system of New York City brings some of the best tasting and safest drinking water in the world to nine million people, mostly in the city’s five boroughs.  It directs nearly 1.5 billion gallons per day (bgd) from a reservoirs system in upstate New York,  90% of which from the Catskill-Delaware systems about 90 miles from Manhattan.  The City is now spending approximately $3 billion to build an ultraviolet disinfection plant for the water supply, and to build a cover over the Hillview Reservoir, one of the last holding points for the supply.  That’s a lot of money, even in NYC!  What are we getting for it?

Except for the 10% from the East-of-Hudson reservoirs just north of the city, the water is unfiltered.  It is of such high quality, and spends so much time in enormous reservoirs, that it does not require cleaning.  Cities that draw their water from the ground or from rivers, gaaaggg!, must carefully filter the water.  The water is disinfected with chlorine to kill harmful bugs (pathogens), like the ones that used to cause cholera and typhus epidemics.  The water is safe!  Why the UV plant?

With the advance of public health science, new “disease vectors” have been identified.  In water supply, the latest are cryptosporidium and giardia, two very tiny critters that can cause intestinal disorders in humans, and if the victims have compromised immune systems, possibly lead to death.  These bugs are not killed by chlorine, but people can protect themselves by drinking boiled water.  They are very rare in NYC water.  There has never been a documented outbreak of any public health risk in NYC due to these bugs.  They can be serious risk in many small and improperly run water suppliers, especially those in agricultural areas, where farm animals produce lots of manure with the bugs that may get washed into water supply areas.  UV sterilizes the tiny bugs, preventing them from reproducing, which is as good as killing them.  Nobody has found a good way to kill them, other than boiling them, which is obviously impractical for 1.5 bgd.

So, we are spending $1.4 billion on a UV plant to eliminate a bug that is rare and impossible to monitor, which has never caused a disease outbreak in NYC, and from which the few at higher risk can protect themselves by drinking boiled water?  There was a serious outbreak about ten years ago in Milwaukee, but that system had a malfunctioning filter (which would normally capture the bugs) and happened during an extreme weather event that would not have a similar effect on NYC’s huge system.  In addition, NYC has a strict watershed protection program in place, which is why the US EPA does not require it to filter most of its water. 

Well, if you were at risk, you would certainly want to have that UV plant online!  But then, looking at it from the public health perspective, $1.4 billion would buy an awful lot of work in preventing TB, AIDS, veneral disease, and other sourges that are killing people now.  What’s the cost-benefit?

The story with the cover is much the same.  Birds pooped in the reservoir, the presence of E coli bacteria spiked, the EPA noticed it in the report and ordered a cover.  The problem was pretty much eliminated with other programs to frighten away and discourage birds, change the way water was withdrawn, etc, but the ruling was kept in place.  No exceptions.  $1.6 billion to build a cover for a reservoir that will not appreciable improve the lives of anyone but engineers and contractors working on it. 

Ahhh…but we can all breathe so much easier, knowing that at least the risk has been reduced to nearly zero!


Uh oh!!

October 29, 2009

Not a close call - Basil Wolverton

Did we just have a really close call with an asteroid?  It wouldn’t be the first time.  Anthony Watts says in his post that the space rock was not being tracked by any Earthlings.  That’s not a happy thought!


Doubt in Eden

May 11, 2009

from Genesis

1 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:
3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
5
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

Now, did the serpent mean: It is certain that you will not die? Or did he mean: It is not certain that you will die? Is this a purposeful ambiguity? Funny that there should be this element of doubt right at the beginning, when knowledge is given to man. Skepticism is at the root, shall we say.

Is the serpent inviting Eve into a structured risky venture, this knowlege business? An invitation to risk assessment? Perhaps she did a quick cost-benefit analysis, and it came out positive for benefit.


Schadenfreude Anyone?

March 21, 2008

schadenfreude.jpg

It’s hard to restrain oneself from chuckling with glee at the ci devant masters of the universe at Bear Stearns as they contemplate their fortunes turned to dust in the twinkling of an eye. Surely the ghost of J. P. Morgan is heaving his paunch and laughing heartily somewhere, up there? down below? jpmorgan.jpg Still, at the banking firm of Bear Stearns – should we just call it BS? – where the culture was to buy the stock of the padrone, quite a few of very ordinary folks will go down with the ship. Secretaries, mail-room workers, lower level admin and research staff, etc. In terms of percent of the people affected, they will be the majority, and they are royally screwed.

In a crisis, they say, you see what people are made of, and so too, a system. Without trust, there can be no business, and trust is dwindling a bit these days. “Come to think of it, just how were those people making all that money?” Why, when you examine the entire business, it does seem a little like a shell game, a Ponzi scheme, don’t it?

It’s all fine as long as the stock is going up. If you aren’t getting rich, it’s your fault, your genes, your backbone, your sorry moral state. The elect and the masters are chosen by The Market, and the words of the Lord are written in the annual reports (doctored, it’s true, but every deity needs an interpretor, a prophet). Now, once again, we hear the words of Captain Renault from the film, Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

Oh well, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead and socialize the risk, privatize the profits! See the recent NY Times editorial on this that sums it up well.

Meanwhile, consider this snippet from a day or so ago in an article about the collapse of Bear:

“In this room are people who have built this firm and lost a lot, our fortunes,” one Bear executive said to Mr. Dimon with anger in his voice. “What will you do to make us whole?”

Why the hell should anyone care about making this troglodyte “whole?”