Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Life lessons from my Kenmore. Part 2.

Had an IM exchange over the weekend with an erstwhile editor of mine at the Wall Street Journal. He happened to mention that he'd seen Part 1 of this little series, and he thought it was much ado about nothing. "A cute little item," he said, "but what's the upshot? OK, so we can't possibly know everything all the time. So? We do the best we can based on the information we have. You can't get all caught up in what you don't know all the time, or else nothing would ever get done."

That sort of shruggish, "big deal/so what?" outlook overlooks the crucial implications here for human fallibility and, in turn, the humility we ought to feel about the things we think we know. Sure, we still n
eed to get things done. It's just that maybe we ought to do them with somewhat less certitude about our grasp of the pertinent facts than many of us display as we go about our business.

As one of the most obvious and relatable examples, let's take the question of eyewitness identifications; I researched the topic extensively for my forthcoming article for Skeptic on the justice system. Once considered the gold standard of courtroom evidence, eyewitness IDs
"That's the man who raped me and I'll go to my grave seeing his ugly, sweaty face!"in recent years have been revealed for the sham most folks in law enforcement (privately) knew them to be all along. The Innocence Project reports that 75 percent of the 238 cases it has helped overturn via DNA evidence were cases in which convictions were won based in whole or in part on eyewitness (mis)identification. The prisoners in question served an average of a dozen years behind bars before exoneration. Seventeen were on Death Row. Someday, I hope, we'll begin to get a handle on how many innocent people were actually executed (or, to put it more colorfully, how many went to their death seeing their false accuser's ugly, sweaty face). Perhaps those grim revelations will finally drive home the point with respect to just how certain we should be about the things we're certain of.

Needless to say, there are countless other key areas of life where this same phenomenon applies: love, child-raising, workplace dynamics. How do we ever know what we simply don't know? How can we ever be sure we've based our conclusions on all of the evidence? How can we even know that the things
we take as Givensthose basics where we reassure ourselves, "Well, if nothing else, at least we know [fill in the blank]"are in fact true/valid?

This is also a common bugaboo in all forms of planning: You think you've got it covered. You think you've thought of everything. Till you realize that not only didn't you think of everything, but the thing you didn't think about (a) was, or should have been, obvious and (b) negated or undid everything else you were trying to accomplish. This particular foible most commonly manifests itself as the so-called law of unintended consequences, wherein your best-laid plans set in motion a series of unforeseen effects that end up exacerbating the very problem that your planning was designed to address.

Here's a quick example that I mention in SHAM: In an odd and unprecedented coincidence, over the course of a couple of years, two or three Little Leaguers die tragically when baseballs strike them in the chest and stop their hearts. Distraught parents sue the leagues, claiming
rightfullythat nothing outweighs the safety of a child. But some smaller leagues, especially in underfunded inner-city neighborhoods, cannot afford the liability insurance or extra protective gear that soon becomes mandatory, so they shut down. Now the affected kids are no longer exposed to the (generally obscure) danger of having their hearts stopped by a moving baseball...but they also have nothing to do after school, so they get involved in more mischievous, if not downright dangerous, activities. As a result, many more than just two or three kids die, and countless other kids head off in the wrong direction in life. That's textbook law of unintended consequences. Something meant to "protect the children!" ends up harming if not killing them.

So when you read items like this one and you think, "Gee, that really seems kind of lightweight and silly," keep in mind that what we're talking about isn't just a dish in a dishwasher. Sometimes it's a hapless guy on Death Row. Or it's the WMD that is
or isn't?hidden somewhere in a far-off land.


Matt Dick said...

Distraught parents sue the leagues, claiming—rightfully—that nothing outweighs the safety of a child.But that isn't true... for anyone, anywhere, except those mothers who lock their children in cages. And those mothers we put in jail. All of life is weighing the relative merits of safety/desire or safety/convenience or safety/efficacy.

My 9 year-old is allowed to bike the neighborhood at her discretion. *Could* that decision kill her? Could she be safer if I told her never to bike again? Yes, absolutely. I just made the reasonable decision that her happiness, confidence, etc., outweighed the danger.

Steve Salerno said...

I agree with you, Matt. The line (mine) was carelessly written. I simply meant to say that they're entitled to feel that nothing outweighs the safety and peace of mind of a child, and that in general, American society embraces that ethic--except when we lock juvenile transgressors up and throw away the key.

Citizen Deux said...

It is all about risk. In a world which has become increasingly averse to risk of any type, we are losing our ability to innovate - and thus grow as a society.

The internet is supposedly overrun with child stalkers, every school seems to harbor an armed psychopath and each previously fun activity is deemed to dangerous to undertake.

I sit now on a military base as the acting security officer and look about at a host of young people who have joined in part because they crave an opportunity to face challenges and risk something to be better people than they were when they started.

Better here than the risk taking they may have undergone in "open" society.

Chris in Cincinnati said...

I am sure you've seen this posted. An upbeat personality will help beat the cancer in addition to the MEDICAL TREATMENT. I wonder what she did to attract the cancer.

"...Sarah Strange, a breast cancer survivor and wife of former Ryder Cup captain Curtis Strange, said Amy Mickelson’s outgoing personality would play a big part in her recovery.

“She’s such an upbeat person, and I think she’ll approach this in the same way, moving forward with confidence,” Sarah Strange said. “I’m sure she’s getting the best treatment they can find. An upbeat attitude plays such a key role in this, her own and those around her. I’ll certainly be extending any experiences I’ve had, any questions she could ask me to keep upbeat..."

Steve Salerno said...

Chris: I also watched Farrah Fawcett's special the other night, and one of the most depressing--truly, heartbreaking--aspects was how she'd keep talking about how "positive" and "optimistic" she was, and she was "sure" the treatment was "going to work this time," or some such...and she'd keep getting her spirits crushed time after time after time...

And when she dies, which--sadly--may be quite soon, her optimism and positivity will die with her.

Rational Thinking said...

I'm wondering whether there is some tie-in between optimism/positivity and the placebo effect? Might make some sense if so. I'd love to understand what's going on with the placebo effect, because it's intriguing.

Steve Salerno said...

RT: I've never disputed the existence of the placebo effect. The sticking point, for me, is: How do we tell the difference between a genuine, helpful placebo effect and the more problematic, delusional kind? And this doesn't just apply to so-called mental healing, either. Take, for example, a case where an athlete gets a cortisone shot in a painful body part. (I have some recent experience in this area.) Within a few days the body part starts to feel miraculously better. So he goes out the next game and plays with a vigor, an abandon, he hasn't felt in a long time. The body part still feels fine--in the beginning. But then, precisely because it "feels fine," he pushes himself harder and ends up doing irreversible damage. Wouldn't that be a case of a "placebo effect" gone awry? That is, where you think you're in better shape than you actually are, thus causing you to make choices that turn out poorly in the end?

Rational Thinking said...

I don't know Steve - if you have a steroid injection and it works, then it's not a placebo effect, as I understand it. But I could well be wrong:-) Or do you mean that the mistaken belief that you are "good as new" is an aspect of placebo effect? And I totally agree that there is a big difference between delusional belief and genuine, measurable improvement or benefit. I read a fascinating article quite recently that basically stated that doctors don't benefit from the placebo effect when they are diagnosed with cancer. Their survival rates are lower than those who are not medically trained. It's just plain weird!

Sarsabu said...

“Within a few days the body part starts to feel miraculously better”

Nothing miraculous about cortisone injections. It works for some people and doesn’t for others. The duration of the effect varies as well. However, not an example of placebo effect as the person knows what is happening in this case (unless something weird is going on) and can make an informed decision. If he wants to compete and risk damage – that is up to him.

Steve Salerno said...

RT & Sars: I guess the distinction I am trying to draw is between feeling better and being better. So in that sense, one could say that any kind of pain relief is a placebo effect of a sort. Whether you're a cancer patient who persuades herself that guided imagery is healing her, therefore she doesn't need chemo--when in fact the cancer is spreading and her inaction makes things worse--or whether you're a weekend warrior (like some of us) who gets a cortisone shot, loads up on motrin, then goes out and does further damage to his knee under the mistaken belief that lack of pain = lack of injury...either way you're in the same boat. No?

Sarsabu said...

A cortisone injection does not cure a physical injury. It certainly can alleviate pain and make eg. a joint more functional. If a person thinks that it will cure them then there has been a serious breakdown im communication.

Years ago a friend of mine had been out drinking (and I mean drinking) the night before a big game. One of the mentors dragged him out of his house and got him to the pitch. He was ill. The mentor then gave him a tablet and told him to put it under tongue and it would sort the problem. He told me there was this horrendous burning sensation.
He of course then assumed he had been given a rapid acting performance enhancing drug. He played the game of his life.
The drug was a "Fisherman's Friend". A Menthol Eucalyptus Lozenge. Now that is the placebo effect!