Volcanoes, healthcare reform and global warming
Over at Edge, a variety of scientists give their take on the Iceland volcano eruption and its impact on air travel. Two really stood out to me. The first also highlights the problem of defensive medicine; the second shows the downside to action dealing with global warming:
Psychologist, Princeton; Recipient, 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences
Imagine a public official who considers an action that involves a small and ambiguous risk of disaster. Imagine further that the best expert judgment available is that the expected social benefit of the action is large and that the risks are real but tolerably small. Such situations inevitably create a conflict between the interests of society and those of the officials who are charged to decide on its behalf.
Hindsight and personal accountability are the problem. Decision makers can be certain that if the worst happens their decision to act — however justified it was ex ante — will be perceived ex post as a horrendous mistake. They face the possibility of devastating blame and guilt, as well as career-destroying consequences. The risks are asymmetric because the costs of playing it safe are likely to be negligible.
Even if future analyses of the ash cloud incident conclude that flights could have resumed safely much sooner, it is unlikely that any of the officials involved in delaying the flights will lose their jobs. In this situation and in many others — defensive medicine is an example — the valid anticipation of hindsight combines with social norms of personal accountability to produce overly cautious behavior.
Where the social good requires taking risks, we need procedures that will reduce personal accountability and diffuse responsibility, perhaps by assigning some categories of decisions to designated groups of experts rather than to individual functionaries.
Science Writer; Founding chairman of the International Centre for Life; Author, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves
The ash cloud reminds us of the risks of risk aversion. Shutting down Europe’s airspace removed the risk of an ash-caused crash, but it also increased all sorts of other risks: the risk of death to a patient because an urgent medical operation might have to be postponed for lack of supplies, the risk of poverty to a Kenyan farm worker because roses could not be flown to European markets, the risk of a collision between ferries on extra night-time sailings in the English Channel. And so on. Risk decisions cannot be taken in isolation. The precautionary principle makes too little allowance for the risks that are run by avoiding risks — the innovations not made, the existing suffering not alleviated. The ash cloud, by reminding us of the risks of not being able to fly planes, is a timely reminder that the risks of global warming must be weighed against the risks of high energy costs — the risks of poverty (cheap energy creates jobs), of hunger (fertiliser costs depend on energy costs), of rainforest destruction and indoor air pollution (expensive electricity makes firewood seem cheaper), of orangutan extinction in subsidised biofuel palm oil plantations.
Oh, and remember the lessons of public choice theory: if you set up a body called the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre, don’t be surprised if it over-reacts the first time it gets a chance the demonstrate that it considers itself — as all public bodies always do — underfunded.