Monday, October 22, 2012

If I'm not perpetually terrified, I'll sue you

You might have seen the recent story of a few Italian scientists and public officials being convicted of manslaughter related to a 2009 earthquake.  In short, they didn't tell everyone to be terrified, consequently they were not, and then an earthquake hit and killed a lot of people.  The BBC has more detail.  There are a few problems here.

First off, they look more like scapegoats than convicted criminals.  If the goal was to sweep for public officials who could have prevented deaths, why limit it to prediction?  Shouldn't building inspectors, building code writers, and construction companies and employees be going to prison as well?  Surely they are at least partially responsible for the buildings which collapsed.  A better prediction wouldn't have made their buildings not fall down.  That they are left unscathed suggests that the goal was not to systematically punish those responsible, but instead to pick a few high-ranking people to make an example of, thereby deflecting blame from all others.

Second, earthquake prediction is not an exact science.  It has gotten better and is certainly valuable, but to expect predictions with sufficient precision to prevent this incident is ridiculous.  Surely we aren't expecting them to have announced months before that a quake could strike in the coming months.  What do the residents do with that information beside panic?

Seismologists in Italy must be rather nervous and after this, more prone to reporting false positives, all in the name of caution.  Of course they aren't doing this out of public welfare, since they were already doing that and crying wolf does no good, but instead because of their own self-interest.  This isn't me attacking them, just noting that people tend to respond to incentives and punishments and at the current time, the punishment for a false negative has spiked.

This leads me to the rocketing cost of healthcare.  Much of that cost comes, not from actual care or even the astronomically expensive new cancer treatments, but from the tests and more tests.    Doctors, like the scientists, are worried about false negatives.  So they order more tests.  Of course we'd want to rule out those things which are easily detected or most dangerous, but eventually there comes a point when the added information from the tests is not worth the money spent on the added tests.  And yet, if the doctor's freedom and finances are on the line, why wouldn't he order more tests?  It only takes the one time that he acts sensibly and is wrong for the malpractice suit to roll in.

I'm a cautious person by nature, the sort who is prone to indecision, always wanting to know a little bit more.  Yet even I can see that this is absurd, to attack experts for making judgements in their area of expertise.  Sometimes they will be wrong.  That isn't their fault, but merely a property of the universe.  Sometimes things go badly.  We should prepare for that and try to prevent it, but we should not becomes so focused on the possible negative events in the future that we create a certain one now.

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