Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

People are Stupid

Isaac Asimov spoke at my college back in the day, and those were his opening words, still as true as ever. I was thinking about why our political culture seems incapable of confronting the real problems we face when I happened to come across an essay by David Hemenway in the new NEJM that seems quite relevant, titled "Why We Don't Spend Enough on Public Health." He breaks down four reasons: medicine often has immediately perceivable benefits, whereas the benefits of public health programs are somewhere off in the gauzy distance; we know specifically who benefits from medical intervention but the beneficiaries of public health programs are individually unidentifiable -- you will never know that you are the person who didn't get sick; physicians are often famous heroes but who ever heard of the guy who invented sewers?; and powerful vested interests often oppose public health programs, such as (and he names the names) "the alcohol, tobacco, firearm automobile, coal and oil industries."

When I started to think about this post I was pondering the comparable, if not greater attention given to Faisal Shahzad and the petroleum gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. Shahzad apparently attended a terrorist training school in Pakistan and majored in bomb making. If that is true, the first thing his lawyer should do is try to get his money back. But we pay so much attention to the relatively inconsequential threat of "terrorism" because when these attempts occur, they are specific, immediate, and visible. There is an individually identifiable malefactor and had he succeeded, there would be individually identifiable victims.

We are suddenly re-evaluating deep water oil exploration but of course the risk of a blowout was always there, and the most important reason not to do it -- that we have to stop using so much petroleum in the first place rather than spending tens of billions of dollars to find more -- is a) based on abstract, long-term concerns and b) furiously opposed by the world's largest, most powerful vested interest.

Until we can rewire our brains we are just going to march on to our doom like cattle in a chute.

(I missed two consecutive weekdays for probably the first time ever, due to proposal hell. Friday is a big NIH deadline. Maybe in the future if that happens I'll throw up some classics. Anyway, I am now coming up for air.)

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