Friday, February 8, 2008

Disasters: doing the RIGHT thing

"Six Missing After Refinery Explosion Injures Dozens," trumpets the headline. A Georgia sugar refinery exploded in flames earlier today. I couldn't help reflecting that, if this had been a nuclear power plant, and six people were killed, the backlash would probably be cataclysmic for the nuclear industry. Three Mile Island didn't kill ANYONE, but it poisoned the regulatory atmosphere for 25 years--only in the last couple of years have people started talking about building new nuclear power plants in the U.S., because the environmentalists have realized that nuclear waste isn't actually nearly as hard to deal with as pollutants (of which CO2 is, rightly or wrongly, their chief concern) and the policymakers have decided that relying on the Middle East for energy is a mistake. (It actually turns out that the U.S. doesn't buy Middle Eastern oil--we get it from Canada and Venezuela and other close sources--but that doesn't matter because oil is fungible, minus the transportation costs. Saudi oil does have the virtue of being extremely cheap to extract, but the benefit of that goes to the Saudis, and only indirectly affects the U.S. by decreasing oil prices.)

Part of the problem is that people don't have a sense of proportion. We can blame some of this on built-in cognitive bias and some of it on deficient mathematics instruction (the point of math skills is for people to realize that you don't have to trust your brain's rule-of-thumb wiring when it doesn't match a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation[1]), and some of it on the fact that we tend to care more about "fixing" problems than understanding them. I recall a story I heard a few months ago, from a fellow who used to work at an amusement park. The park had a lot of part-time, long-term employees from the local area. New management came in and, in a cost-cutting measure, fired all the long-term employees and hired new kids for a lot cheaper to do the same jobs. It didn't hurt the long-term employees any because they made more money at their real jobs, but it surgically removed all the experience from the staff--all the supervisors and managers went back to being nurses and machinists and whatnot and the kids had to be supervisors and managers. It worked out okay for a few months, and then an oversight led to a simple mistake being made, one that any long-term employee would have known to correct--I believe a cable was left out in the wrong place--and a horrible accident occurred and maimed three people, as I recall. There was a horrible outcry and the public demanded tighter safety regulations of amusement parks. Anyone who was familiar with the situation would have told you that the procedures (which are the things regulations control) were just fine. The real problem was that poor management had destroyed the park's human capital: experienced employees. I don't think the public ever became aware of this dimension of the problem, they just demanded that SOMEBODY SHOULD DO SOMETHING and THERE OUGHTTA BE A LAW. Whether government action was really necessary in this case is not something I can judge from here, but if action is taken it should be after you know what the problem actually is--you can put up more hoops for the kids to jump through, but they're still kids. If you must take action, mandate that a certain percentage of the park workers be long-term employees. I think you can see why that's a terrible idea, and that's why I'd favor no government action at all, because the root cause of the problem cannot be solved by government in any sane way. I actually think the problem should have been solved by the press, by discovering and publishing the managerial negligence at the root of the problem so the market can punish appropriately.

Anyway, trying to leap to a solution before you know the problem is likely to be expensive, ineffective, and possibly dangerous. I've heard from some quarters that 2001 was the warmest year in recent history and the temperature has been dropping somewhat since then[2], and it seems to be true that the meteorologists and whatever-they-call-guys-who-study-sunspot-activity are nervous about the solar cycle and low flux density ("The Canadian Space Agency's radio telescope has been reporting Flux Density Values so low they will mean a mini ice age if they continue"). Climatologists think CO2 has caused a lot of warming and will continue to cause warming, physicists say CO2 can't have the effect the climate modelers say it does, meteorologists aren't sure what's happening, and well-meaning political activists want to classify CO2 as a pollutant[3] and regulate it heavily.

Understand the problem before you (re-)act, or you will probably do the wrong thing[4].


[1] For instance, I checked, and the U.S. national debt is about $30K per capita right now. That's a lot, especially because not every capitum is a worker, but home mortgages probably add up to more. This is not to say that I'm happy about debt and even less happy about deficits, but it puts things in quantitative perspective.

[2] I haven't checked this claim out thoroughly. I'm actually skeptical that a single global temperature measurement can have any meaningful validity anyway--what does it mean to say that "the Earth" averaged X degrees Fahrenheit this year?

[3] It might be equally appropriate to classify it as a fertilizer. I've been told that plant photosynthetic efficiency scales roughly as the square root of carbon dioxide concentration. Roughly speaking, twice the CO2 means almost 50% more plant growth. Which, incidentally, uses up CO2 in the growing.

[4] There are exceptions. A well-known axiom of warfare is that, in battle, a wrong decision is still better than no decision at all--probably because it makes sure your subordinates are at least pointed in the same direction, and then they use their initiative and try their level best to make your orders come out all right anyway.

"The presentation or 'gift' of the Holy Ghost simply confers upon a man the right to receive at any time, when he is worthy of it and desires it, the power and light of truth of the Holy Ghost, although he may often be left to his own spirit and judgment." --Joseph F. Smith (manual, p. 69)

Be pretty if you are,
Be witty if you can,
But be cheerful if it kills you.

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