Wednesday, August 04, 2010
Some time ago, I recommended Spiked writer Frank Furedi's take on the Icelandic volcano eruption for its identification of precautionary (or "worst-case") thinking as the culprit behind a government response that did more harm than good. Now, deputy editor Bob Lyons chimes in with a retrospective on the Deepwater Horizon industrial accident, in which he considers a variety of lessons learned. His central such lesson is, "Don't panic."
In the early days after the accident, we were promised that the beaches of the southern US would be painted black by thick crude oil, that fisheries would be wrecked for years and the tourism industry destroyed. Yet there were always good reasons to believe that these things would not happen: the oil was being blasted out of a torn pipe one mile deep and 50 miles offshore in warm waters. A combination of natural dispersal, evaporation and bacterial decomposition meant that a lot of oil would never make it ashore. Also, the use of boons to block the oil, chemical dispersants and oil-skimming vessels helped to ensure that only a small fraction of the original leak made it to dry land.Sadly, I didn't write about any of this, or I could now pat myself on the back and say, "I told you so." But I do remember talking about this with my father-in-law and the two of us agreeing that this wasn't going to turn out to be the long-term devastation of the Gulf that we seemed to keep hearing about from every media outlet.
One thing I find interesting is the following parallel between cynicism and worst-case thinking: Each is a naive position, as Ayn Rand once noted of cynicism, that arises from discarding ideals -- moral ideals in the case of cynicism, and the benevolent universe premise in the case of precautionary thinking.
In each case, the result is the same: One's thinking goes on a malevolent tear, often unchecked by facts that are easily available. After the volcanic eruption in Iceland, Europe stopped flying altogether despite the existence of known procedures for dealing with such a hazard to aviation. Likewise, news reporting, the public debate, and aspects of the government response to the oil spill in the Gulf, were all colored (and hampered or made worse than useless) by ignorance (or evasion) of known mitigating factors, not to mention of the importance of cheap energy to the economy and, therefore, our lives.
As Alex Epstein of the Ayn Rand Institute put it so well when discussing a column on the spill by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times:
One of the hallmarks of intellectual adulthood is the ability to put events in context -- to gather all the the relevant facts before drawing definitive conclusions and certainly before taking drastic, long-term action. A tragic accident involving offshore oil drilling (over 1/4 of domestic production is offshore) is certainly a case calling for adult thinking.The stunted intellectual development of so many in our age -- so rampant that entire books have been written about its various manifestations -- is much more of a crisis than any mere accident can be.
It, too, however, can be overcome.