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Societies Making Bad Decisions
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Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, has an article in the current edition of The Edge, in which he asks and tries to answer the question: WHY DO SOME SOCIETIES MAKE DISASTROUS DECISIONS?

He outlines four reasons, with examples:

First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives.

Secondly, when the problem arrives, the group may fail to perceive the problem.

Then, after they perceive the problem, they may fail even to try to solve the problem.

Finally, they may try to solve it but may fail in their attempts to do so.

It's an interesting article by a very smart guy, though in retrospect many of the reasons seem fairly obvious.

Groups don't think long term. Individuals with more power within the group make bad decisions to benefit them at the expense of the many, or future generations.

I was particularly interested in a given societies ability to percieve threats. Diamond talks about Montana forest fires, and how Europeans migrating to the area instinctively put out fires, causing long term problems by allowing dry fuel to accumulate, resulting in worse fires in the long run. He also talks about the first colonists to Australia, who unknowingly depleted the nutrients in the soil by farming.

Was the hard way the only way for each of these cultures to learn their mistakes?

Diamond says part of the reason for writing the article (and his new upcoming book, I presume) is to explore why societies make horrible decisions, and enable societies to avoid bad decision-making.

But how do you avoid a problem if you don't realize there might be one?

Diamond doesn't give an answer (maybe his forthcoming book Ecocide will), because it sounds like in many cases, you're simply screwed. Those early Australians, in order to preempt the problem, would have had to have posessed a technology that didn't exist at the time. It seems the only way for them to figure out that they were depleting the soil was for it to happen.

In contrast, Diamond talks about the Eastern Islanders, who depleted their source of timber by chopping down every single tree. Now, it seems like they could have anticipated that this might be a problem, by internally modeling the problem in their heads.

So how do we know when there's actually a problem, and how do we go about anticipating problems?

One thing he doesn't really address in the article is the Chicken Little syndrome. That is, he talks about unanticipated or downplayed potential problems, but he doesn't talk about those who overestimate potential problems. How do you distinguish between the two?

My answer would be critical thinking and scientific literacy. Many of the environmental and agricultural problems Diamond gives as examples stem from lack of logical planning or lack of knowledge of the natural world.

There's a strong case here for increased scientific literacy among given cultures or populations, which would, in general, lead to better long-term decision making. He concludes:

Thus, my reason for discussing failures of human decision-making is not my desire to depress you. Instead, I hope that, by recognizing the sign posts of failed decision making, we may become more consciously aware of how others have failed, and of what we need to do in order to get it right.

He doesn't say what we need to do to get it right, though it's implied by the essay. Again, maybe his book outlines some ideas. But I think one could argue, in the sorts of decision-making he's talking about, that egalitarianism as an ideal is very important, as is rationality and scientific literacy.

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