by Elaine Walker, October 26, 2012 (Downloadable PDF file)
"The problem isn't that Johnny can't read. The problem isn't even that Johnny can't think. The problem is that Johnny doesn't know what thinking is; he confuses it with feeling." –Thomas Sowell
Things are not always as they seem and outcomes of events are not always easy to predict. Sometimes one very simple event can cause widespread changes that ripple out, in turn causing other changes which play out over time and are unforeseen, undesirable or even life threatening.
A large asteroid hitting the Earth is a very simple event in a sense; one rock, one planet. But if a ten mile wide asteroid were to hit the Earth, a long chain of devastating events would occur. First would come an ear shattering sonic boom, intense blinding light, a crushing heat pulse, severe radiation burns, tsunamis around the world, lethal balls of hot glass, devastatingly fast winds and flash fires. The dust, debris and gases thrust into the stratosphere would block sunlight for months, lowering global temperatures and killing the plants. Then the herbivores would perish, then the carnivores and on up the food chain. Most life on Earth would be gone in just a matter of days.
That was a drastic example of a simple cause with complicated and devastating consequences. That example was also inevitable. No one at the time could have done anything about it. No dinosaur could have deflected an asteroid. But there are endless examples of things we humans do, in all of our brilliance, that have unforeseen and unwanted consequences which could be avoided. Some consequences are never traced back to their initial cause due to the subtlety and complexity of society, letting many lessons go unlearned.
One example that was easy enough to trace after the fact happened in Israel with a simple campaign to eradicate fruit bats. Unforeseen was that 80% of the insectivorous bats also died, and as a result, caused the local moths to breed uncontrolled. In turn, their caterpillars became major agricultural pests, which led to extensive insecticides being used thereafter to control the moth population, which of course pollutes the environment. Call it the butterfly effect or call it unforeseen consequences, but it is just the way things work in the world. Everything is connected and affected by everything else in causal chains of events, whether directly or indirectly.
Consequences of a government program are often so unintuitive and hard to predict that it takes a shrewd logical mind to even attempt to do so. In many cases it isn't even possible. Some unintended consequences are subtle and too easily blamed on other things. As “advanced” as we are, I wonder why we can’t track the cause-and-effect of our actions better than we do. It's a shame because it causes ripples of tension and disagreement in our society that is all too widespread. I would largely blame it on the issue of logic versus emotion in our society.
There are logical decisions and there are “emotional” decisions. By logical decisions I don’t necessarily mean those of a completely emotionally barren Vulcan. Most decisions involve both logic and emotion, but certainly we tend to lean one way or another, depending on the person, and the topic, and the circumstances.
In our society, programs are often initiated with very little logical foresight but more so with what I call "emotional thinking". In other words, it might "feel good" to initiate a program to "help" a sector of society in need. But emotional thinking does very little to predict what the consequences of a program might be. Emotional thinkers are also usually pretty bad at drawing connections after the fact between any unintended consequences and their original cause, only seeing the intended consequences and thus declaring their program a success, when for all intents and purposes it may have caused more harm than good. It may have actually harmed the very people it was meant to help.
Not all of us are emotional thinkers by default, but we are all abstract thinkers, and that is really what sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Our abstract minds allow us to make sense of the world around us by categorizing, prioritizing, and using broad, sweeping high level thought. Our abstract brand of thinking has made us powerful to the point where we have risen above the animal kingdom, and we can be thankful for that. However, the problem is that it can really mess us up when it comes to problem solving in society, especially if a situation has an emotional context.
With our abstract minds we tend to see problems connected directly to "solutions" as if the situation exists in a vacuum. This works well in our personal lives where any consequences or "tradeoffs" tend to only affect ourselves or at most our immediate family or community. However, in larger groups, one sweeping "solution" will almost always affect more people than it was intended for, and often have an ill affect. In large groups we are a complex system of intermingling individuals and on the whole behave more like a living, breathing, self-evolving entity. We often misleadingly view society as a collection of static, separate, unchanging categories of people and forget that we are all connected causally one way or another. Categories of people overlap and we inevitably change over time, often moving from one category to another.
In our normal daily lives we're used to simple causal relationships and that is fine since most day to day events in our personal lives don't enter the realm of complexity. But the collective dynamic of society is vastly more complex than anything we normally encounter day to day. It makes more sense to treat our collective society as a part of nature – like unpredictable weather – and stop convincing ourselves that we can actually control and change society on command without the possibility of dire consequences.
In order to grasp the complexities of society, or of nature for that matter, it's necessary to almost fight our normal tendency for abstract thinking as well as any tendency for emotional thinking (if we are emotional thinkers) and expend the extra effort of using logic and deduction to at least try to imagine all possible consequences before we make any sweeping policy decisions.
Copyright © 2012 by Elaine Walker. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given and author notified.