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Thursday Musing - Transience Divine
June 23rd, 2006
03:02 am


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Thursday Musing
Recent questions, from Louisiana disaster preparedness to timelines for troop withdrawal, hinge on a deep question of, "What can we know?" Specifically, I'm interested in the following difficulty: human models give us enormous power by predicting the future fairly well, but they seem to be always insufficient in the worst possible ways.

If chaos and critical states (and Heisenberg and human complexity) weren't enough to spoil our knowledge of the future, there seems to be a necessary irrationality to reality. Unless we're cooking with controlled experiments and Capitalized Abstracts, the devil is always in the details-- from explaining history to solving moral dilemmas, we can't get away from trouble, because there's still an infinitude that we've been unable to capture by our theories and measurements. It's a miracle of river-splitting proportions that our human game of mathematics can provide any comfort.

As a obsessive model-maker, I'd like to believe that it's possible to capture some features of any process, and have it be enough to fool some of the future some of the time. I'm fairly certain I'll never have proof that I can get that much, and no more, but it's worked so far. What does that leave us with, though? Disaster. Catastrophe. Terrorist Action. The unexpected, unexplained, unaccounted for.

In some sense, our drive to model the universe creates these features. The unexplained is our greatest threat because we care so much about explaining. If we build a better model, the most it can do is provide a hidden potential for a new critical state-- an unseen reservoir for everything left over to ferment in until the pressure is great enough that our world pops.

So we come to the real problem: why bother? Why develop new antibiotics when it leads to deadlier bacteria for our children? Why build stronger levees when there will always a storm strong enough to burst them? Why fight oil use when the human drive to use up any available resource and butt against new misery is as natural as water to a level surface?

I do think there's part of a reason, but it can't be about averting the unexpected. Since I spent this long posing the question, I'll just sketch today was seems to me to be an answer (I don't have more yet). I think it has to be about finding a way of life, rather than solutions to problems (I can rant some other time about how life isn't a solution). We need to concentrate on ways to live healthy lives, individually and as a society, physically and psychologically. We still learn from disaster-- not about the disaster, but about ourselves (because the unexpected is usually a direct result of our efforts). We're still concerned with the future-- more so, I think. But the future isn't taken to be a string of possible unexpectedness, even though it's that too. Instead, we worry about the harm or the kindness we're bringing about in it by the actions and attitudes we take now, irrespective of the new challenges that are bound to appear.

The pragmatic fact that such an approach calms many of the fate's furies-- terrorism to consumerism-- is another miracle. Of reincarnative proportions, that one.

(4 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:June 23rd, 2006 08:34 am (UTC)
The frustrating thing about these events isn't that they were unexpected, but that people ignored the warnings.

Take terrorism, for example. The 2000 report on world terrorism listed Al Qaeda as the US's biggest threat, yet general Ashcroft (IIRC) diverted FBI funds away from counter-terrorism efforts and into anti-drug efforts when he came into office.

As for Iraq, almost anyone knowledgeable about the situation could have predicted the fiasco ahead of time; the problem there is either A. group think, a common human behaviour which is easily modeled, or b. lying/trickery.

Inasmuch as we can hypothesize groupthink, we can draw parallels between the decision to invade Iraq and the Bay of Pigs decision under the Kennedy Administration.

As for Katrina, we knew well in advance that the likelihood that a hurricane of that magnitude would do enormous damage to NO...

What I think is important isn't getting caught up in the petty details--was this memo forged, was that levy reinforced--but seeing the larger, overall patterns of behaviour.

My appologies if I have misread what you meant to say...
[User Picture]
Date:June 26th, 2006 04:45 am (UTC)
> My appologies if I have misread what you meant to say...

Not at all. Your point is different from mine, but perhaps more valid. Because I have difficulty sifting through all the information and opinions and possible future events, I wanted to just assume we couldn't have known and work from that. So I critiqued contemporary society, seeing a lifestyle shift as the solution.

Do you have a sense of how much we actually do know the source of and solution to our future problems (say, for the next 10 years)? It seems like either (a) some identifyable experts know what we should be fixing to avoid catastrophies over the next decade, and simply need to be given more authority, or (b) groupthink is so pervasive that no one is capable of an objective prediction of the future (assuming one is possible), in which case we're back to a need for a livestyle shift.

Take some likely catastrophic problems: continued environmental damage causing catastrophic food-chain or climate shifts; credit bubbles, trade policies, and deficit spending collumnating in a collapse of the American and then world economy; the rapid spread of a deadly new natural or man-mutated virus. Roughly, the first and second can be avoided by large policy changes or global lifestyle shifts, and the third probably can't be avoided or would require such a curtailing of science and travel that we're willing to take the risk. But ignoring the last, why are we still running headlong into the other two catastrophies?

Sorry for the ramble; I need to think on this more.
[User Picture]
Date:June 26th, 2006 09:54 pm (UTC)
I think it's easy to feel overwhelmed when looking at the problems we haven't fixed yet or haven't been able to accurately predict yet, but on the whole we do a very good job of predicting and responding to most problems. Take the flu, for example. Every year, scientists predict which kidn of flu is going to be most prevalent and make tons of vaccines for it. Then we get something like bird flu, which we can't really predict. But on the otherhand, bird flu might not even happen. So let's just pull numbers out of our asses and assume scientist have about a 90% ability to predict/make vaccines for the flu. THat's a hell of a lot better than the influenza epidimecs of the 1800s and early 1900s.

Or to draw from another realm of science, geology/volcanology, sure, there's a ton we don't understand about the earth and that we can't model about volcanoes, but by the same token, there are no modern Pompeis.

Even some of the worst casualties of the Xmas tsunami a while back could have been prevented if there'd been a proper warning system in place--a good number of scientists knew it was going to happen, they just couldn't get the word out.

Group think, of course, is a problem. And I think it's a lot more prevalent than people think. This is part of why I think everyone ought to, as part of their basic education, learn about things like the Milgrom Experiments, the Stanford Experiments, and the basics of how to conduct a scientifically/statistically sound experiment/survey/whatever. People need to know about how their brains process information and the various ways in which information may be inaccurately gathered in order to evaluate the world around them.

One of boy's former professors over hat H has a really good lecture series he does on how the way we understand adn interpret the world affects our perceptions and how this impacts law. I don't know when he's going to be holding it again, though.
[User Picture]
Date:June 26th, 2006 10:23 pm (UTC)
The problem with experts is picking *which* experts. I can find you an 'expert' who'll tell you the earth was made in 6 days...

environmental damage causing catastrophic food-chain or climate shifts
What I suspect will happen is that a bunch of people will have to move if cities flood, which will be inconvenient. If the areas in which people can grow crops shifts, there will be lots of government subsidies to move people around. People will have to pay more for their food for a bit, and then things will settle down.

The people who'll be really negatively affected are the poor in Africa, who won't have the capacity to move around, nor the gov't assistance to do so. But honestly, for a lot of these people, their short-term chances of survival are low enough that large-scale climate changes probably aren't the first thing on their minds.

It probably will fuck up the food chain, but, (and while I would be sad to see the polar bears die out,) it's not likely to affect the parts of the food chain which affect us. We raise our crops and livestock, and so aren't dependent on most food-chainy sorts of things. Bad for the planet, yes. Bad if there's potential cancer cures or whatever that we lose from the plants, yes. But as far as what's likely to seriously impact me, well, I'm just going to bitch about the lack of snow.

On the other hand, if the rainforests die off or something serious happens to the oxygen production in the oceans, that could be serious. But I haven't seen that happening in any of the models, so I don't see it as all that likely.

credit bubbles, trade policies, and deficit spending collumnating in a collapse of the American and then world economy
The American economy is already shitty. Get out if you can. Seriously, until they make some major revisions to corporate law, it's going to continue to suck.

On the other hand, we survived the depression, and I think we could survive another one. Also, the world economy is more robust now than it was in the 30s. Even without the US as a major player, the Euro and Yen (and soon the Rupee and Yuan,) will still strong.

The thing I worry about is continued US foreign-policy relations with the powers of Europe and China. Countries like France and Germany are far more important to global security and economic well-being than the current administration seems to understand...

the rapid spread of a deadly new natural or man-mutated virus.

While this would be bad, it still probably wouldn't compare to previous epidemics such as The Plague. (Now treatable with penicillin!) Our knowledge of how diseases spread and how to fight them is so superior to what it was in the days of the plague that the chances of anything comprable happening are probably slim. Even AIDS we have the technology to mostly prevent the transmission of--it just takes education.

Or take SARs, which seemed pretty dire at first--when gov'ts took notice and started putting out warnings and sicked scientists on the problem, they were able to beat it back.

Is this to say that some uncurable, antibiotic-resistant straing of TB couldn't arise? Of course not; I just don't think it's likely to spread very far.

As for terrorists doing that sort of thing, honestly, it doesn't fit in with the basic model of how terrorists operate. If terrorists wanted to do something like that, they could have already. It would be realy simple. But no, they put white powder in a few envelopes and mailed them to people. Yeah, like that's going to infect millions.

Terrorists, pretty much by definition, try to *scare* people into doing what they want. This means random bombings, random assasinations, random hijackings, etc. Their goal is generally *not* to destroy millions of people. They tend to be as much calculating rational actors as anyone else involved in a war, they just don't have tanks and planes. So they have more to gain from randomly mailing envelopes to people and infecting them than by trying to kill off the entire population.

The main reasons I can see for wanting to kill off a large portion of a population is if you were trying to conquer them, and I don't really see anyone as trying to conquer the US anytime soon.

I'll try to make it to the salon tomorrow. ^_^
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