Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Informed Irrationality

So technology writer Mike Elgan, on my Google+ feed, turned me on to a short TED Talk by Dr. Michael Huemer: "The Irrationality of Our Politics." It's a short talk, only about 15 minutes long. Dr. Huemer starts with The War On Terror, and he makes a few comparisons. In the past 50 years about 3,200 people have died in acts of domestic terrorism. In that same timeframe, non-terrorist murderers killed about 802,000 people. He also compares this to the 6,300 servicepeople who have been killed fighting the War On Terror, and about 230,000 other people, mainly civilians in the war zones, have been killed.

"If you have a policy," Dr. Huemer notes, "that kills 70 times as many people as the problem you're trying to solve, then that's usually like a prima facie indicator that it might be an irrational policy." Applause follows.

Leaving aside the typical War On Terror apologetics, such as his leaving out the possible death tolls of thwarted attacks, and quibbles over the numbers of foreigners killed, I have a simple question - what IS the problem that the War On Terror is trying to solve?

Dr. Huemer assumes that continuing domestic deaths are the problem, that the overall goal of the War On Terror is to reduce the death toll among American citizens. I, for my part, think not. As far as I'm concerned, the goal of the War On Terror was, and is, to make a certain segment of the American voting public feel "safe" from the threat of a radical Islamist attacking and/or murdering them in their homes, workplaces or means of transportation. Now, I deliberately used the word "feel" because, when it really comes down to it, most of us don't KNOW if we're safe or not. And I put safe in quotes because most of us would likely have a difficult time defining what safe means. Is it an absolutely 0% chance of something bad happening? And is the idea to suppress the risk, or to shift it to someplace (or someone) else?

And once you frame the debate in that fashion, things shift. We move from being able to make an apples to apples comparison of body counts here versus body counts there and people killed by terrorists to people killed by common domestic criminals to having to weigh two different things, and try to understand what one is worth in terms of the other.

There is no doubt that we've spent quite a bit of time, money and lives fighting the War On Terror. But to understand the rationality of the policy, you have to ask yourself (and Dr. Huemer avoids this), if there wasn't - given the information that was at hand - a less expensive way to get to the same result. While Dr. Huemer doesn't realistically have the time to work through all of the options in a 15 minute lecture, it's actually a requirement to really understanding what's going on, and whether or not it makes rational sense.

It's also worth pointing out that there is difference between a belief that is initially irrational and one that turns out in hindsight to have been inaccurate. It's quite irrational to apply a solution that costs 70 times the problem one is attempting to solve. But if your information at the time said the cost would be 70 percent, then it may have been perfectly rational, if incorrect, to attempt it. Well, once your costs completely outstrip the benefits, shouldn't you stop? The answer to that is actually "maybe." The more than 200,000 people who have been killed and injured thus far are what a project manager would call a sunk cost. And project management doctrine calls for never considering sunk costs in decisions on what to do in the future.

But there's another point that Dr. Huemer makes that perhaps bears closer scrutiny is this:
Why is it important for you to correct the problem of irrationality? The reason is although it is kind of in your self-interest to continue to be irrational, it's against the interests of society as a whole. You're imposing serious risks on he rest of society.
Okay. So? Why is it rational to privilege what is good for society over what is good for myself? If what is good for me and what is good for society are at odds, why does rationality demand that I side against myself? But more importantly, how do I determine what society is, and how do I judge the competing interests? To go back to the example of the War On Terror, if we say the cost was 70 times the problem, then it seems that we're counting the Afghans and Iraqis who died as part of "society" for this purpose. But is that really true? Are Afghans and Iraqis part of the same society as Americans? If they are, why weren't deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan due to terrorism before the wars started counted as part of the problem?

I suppose I could go on, but I'm starting to suspect that this particular horse, how we understand something as rational, and how we look at it in the greater context of our lives, is already dead. Thanks to Dr. Huemer for bringing it up, but we're going to have a lot more work to do to go beneath the surface and beyond what people understand to be self-evident. But that TED Talk, I suspect, will need to be more along the lines of 15 hours, rather than 15 minutes.

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