Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Stats Versus Stories and the Zero Tolerance Society

One of the problems we face is that our experiences tend to color (wow, almost typed in colour--another sign of being in Canada for seven years) our perceptions so much that salient stories tend to overwhelm reality--reality as defined by statistics. The classic example is that there is less crime than there used to be but people actually believe crime is still peaking. This is largely because the media focuses on the stories of crimes rather than the non-stories of non-crimes. This leads to all kind of behavior that diminishes how we experience life.

This was made clearer to me when Steve Greene, not only a blogger but also FB friend, linked to article covering Lenore Skenazy and her new book, Free Range Kids, that asserts that our kids are just as safe as we were when we were growing up. While I find her willingness to let her nine year old ride the NY subway on her own a bit troublesome (tempting fate?), clearly we have gone overboard trying to safeguard our kids. Kids are safer waiting with each other (parents tend to wait these days with them) at bus stops than, well, riding in the busses or, worse, in our cars. One of the on-going arguments in my own house has been whether there are more predators than before, or that they are simply revealed and covered more than in the past. The odds, Skenazy, suggests are against any individual kid being harmed, so we need to evaluate critically the relative risks and benefits of safeguarding versus "free ranging" our kids.

I did plenty of stupid things completely unsupervised when I was a kid and managed to survive with all of my fingers and toes and only a few scars. I also saw far more inappropriate movies than my parents would probably admit these days. So, I think I should generalize from my own experience that we worry too much. And the stats are on my side!

And this leads to a frequent rant of mine--that we now live in a zero tolerance society where institutions set up rules that are enforced rigidly rather than adjusting to circumstance. A kid says, "I want you to die" and then is suspended even though he had no intention of killing anyone. I certainly would have liked certain people to die when I was in middle school, but had no intention of killing them. The new book on Columbine should help clarify how we prevent and react to such events, but I am afraid that the early lessons drawn will be the ones that last. Oprah canceled her show on the book because it focused too much on the killers, missing an opportunity to try to replace the old myths with some useful, fear-reducing truths. The good news is that the police have learned new tactics to deal with such events and are prepared for them. The bad news is that schools and other institutions will focus on reducing all risks as much as possible, particularly the risk of lawsuits, and reduce the discretion that the teachers and principals should have.

And this matters for international relations as well. My current work, with David Auerswald, is on the varying levels of discretion the commanders have in Afghanistan, and, by extension, elsewhere. NATO has been caught in a series of debates and conflicts over the burden-sharing problem in Afghanistan--some countries are facing much higher risks than others, with Canada quite visibly bearing a disproportionate burden. These national restrictions, a.k.a. caveats, are not new, but are quite important because the less flexibility the commanders on the ground have, the less able they are to respond and adapt to the insurgents.

Our analytical question is on the how and the way of degrees of discretion, with a sometimes obvious judgment that more discretion is often better. Certainly, six years of Rumsfeldian micro-management has made more discretion appear to be the better choice. To be clear, the decision to delegate should not be automatic either, as often major and not-so-major decisions about war are too important to be left to the generals. This is something I am trying to figure out--no easy solutions come to mind.

And, of course, I am a hyprocite as a recent article in the local Montreal newspaper indicated that the risks of speeding far outweigh the rewards, particularly for short trips. Despite the fact that the stats used in the article ignore the incredibly lengthy and poorly designed traffic lights in Montreal (which make beating the light more important), the point is well-taken. But will I change my behavior? Not likely.

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