Monday, March 24, 2008

The Parable of the Little Boy Who Watched Adults Avoiding the Wolf Once too Often

Poneke makes use of a poorer than average review by John Lancaster to sneer at media and government overreactions to the Y2K Bug scare.

She’s almost right: the scent of possible catastrophe sent much of the media into a feeding frenzy. Their tales and fins thrashed the water as they competed for chunks of impending doom. And this didn’t do much to add to clarity on the actual issues.

I even recall reading somewhere (possibly in Nexus in which case it serves me right) an alarming passage on how Y2K might cause the silicon chips in milk cartons to malfunction! Even as a much more credulous younger man, I still wondered about that a bit. I mean, what role does a silicon chip in a milk carton actually play? And, if it suddenly ends up in a muddle over dates, how disastrous can that actually be? Still, that didn’t stop me from racing home at 11:59pm on New Year's eve and eagerly watching the fridge (from a vantage point behind the couch) hoping to learn just what the problem was.

But Poneke is also wrong in chastising the world’s governments for taking action. And this, I think, is symptomatic of an all too common problem. When a threat arises, be it bird flu, or SARS or Y2K, and when we take action to prevent it from leading to catastrophe, the fact that a catastrophe doesn’t occur doesn’t mean that we were wrong to take action. Showing that a catastrophe didn’t occur isn't the same as showing that it wouldn’t had we not acted. And it seems particularly arrogant to criticise those people who may have stopped it from occurring because, hah hah, it didn’t occur. Even when action was, ultimately, not necessary this doesn’t mean that – in a world of risk and uncertainty – we were wrong to follow the precautionary principle either.

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