19
Jan
11

NASA, Zero Pox, and Weather Report

This post is about sticking with an issue long enough to see what history has to say about otherwise very uncertain pronouncements in tough situations. One reason Barack Obama did so well in the primary against Hillary is that both politicians had made a decision about the Iraq war, Hillary for and Barack against, and Barack turned out to be substantially correct (or did he? A longer time horizon maybe revealed that he was the one who was wrong, but things change as time stretches on).

Thus,  one really good character trait is judgment, which is the ability to get things right when complete information is lacking.

I bring this up because I want to brag a little bit. In this post I argued that the government would win handily in a national security / privacy case called NASA v. Nelson. Basically, the government was requiring some background checks for some contract engineers at a jet propulsion lab, and they complained about it. Well, I am proud to say that I was right and that the government won a UNANIMOUS VICTORY. Now I don’t know if this ruling is good in the sense that it makes our system of law more just or fair, but I am saying that after reading the facts of the case, I thought it was a clear victory for the government.

Ok, but really, this is a small point. The bigger point is that we need to study history to learn about our capacity for judgment. Inevitably we face hard choices, and so we go with one option over the other. The only way to sharpen our ability to make those type of choices is to go back, and do some history to see how our process of decision-making is successful or not.

Here I talked about a book I’m reading called Scourge. This book has something to say about judgment and history as well.

In the 90’s smallpox had been eliminated from the world and only existed in the laboratories of the CDC and some Ex-Soviet bio-weapon facility. The question was, what to do with these viruses. Some people advocated destroying them and so, seemingly, ending the existence of that virus on earth (since it cannot survive outside of humans). Others thought it would be worth keeping the ‘ole virus around to learn things from it. This debate was very hard to resolve at the time that it was brewing most fiercely. “Destructionists” thought that nothing could be learned from smallpox because it did not have a suitable animal model from which results could be extrapolated from. They also argued that there was a risk in keeping the virus around to be stolen or for an accident to happen.

Those on the other side thought that the virus could be used to learn about the human immune system as well as to create new drugs and more sophisticated vaccines. They argued that other countries had secretly preserved the virus and that the U.S. as well as the rest of the civilized world should do the same.

Well who was right? History gives a partial answer. Not only did research discover a suitable animal model for further research, but there were significant strides made in finding antibiotics that attacked the virus as well as new vaccines that would work for immunosuppressed people.

The importance of these innovations can be seen by considering 9/11.  The pessimists seemed to get a lot of credibility for their assertion that there were bad people that would not hesitate to use biological weapons if they could get their hands on them, especially after the anthrax scare right after 9/11.

Of course, history may reverse and trick us again. What if the next attack takes place using stolen viruses from the CDC or from a decaying Soviet biowarfare lab? Then the decision to retain the virus is going to look pretty stupid, and the “right decision” may continue to change depending on what actually happens.

Thus there is a difference between what is in fact the best decision and what is the best decision at the time and given the available facts. Only smart thinking can make the latter, but only history can teach us what the former was.

What I mean is that there is a difference between what happens and what was calculated to happen. If the risk of having the virus stolen was, objectively, 1/1000000, then it made sense to store the virus, even if history takes the path of that extremely minute percentage and it gets stolen and then used. The right decision at the time would be storing the virus, but history would teach us that it would have been better to destroy it.

Also, just found out about this song “Birdland” by Weather Report. It’s quite good.

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