Friday, December 18, 2009

The Scientists Who Cried Wolf

In one of Aesop's fables a shepherd boy cries wolf to relieve his boredom. Of course the villagers rush to defend the flock but then get angry when they learn that there is no wolf. The young shepherd is so stubborn that he repeats the offense several times, until finally the villagers refuse to believe him. That obvious lesson seems lost on some scientists in the climate debate.

We have now been treated to the saddest spectacle of scientific fraud in my memory. The Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in England is one of very few institutions where the raw data on climate history is supposed to be stored. It is now documented that “scientists” at that institution modified data and discarded the original information. In the ethics of science that is equivalent to a clergyman ordering changes made to the Bible. All data and other information from that institution are now suspect. In fact Phil Jones has now stepped aside, at least temporarily, as director of CRU while this is under investigation. The scandal now even has a name, it's being called “Climategate.”

Is this limited to our friends in England? Sadly no. Michael E. Mann at Penn State also appears to have been involved and others may be. Furthermore, some support for the CRU seems to have come from U.S. tax money, a fact that has caused the U.S. Department of Energy to put a litigation hold on information in case the lawyers get involved. Information in that department cannot be discarded in case it is subpoenaed. At this time it is uncertain just how deep the deception runs but information now available is enough to cast doubt on the databases used to prove the man-made global warming theory.

As if that were not enough, the “scientists” involved were attempting to censor scientists with opposing viewpoints. Science depends on a peer-review process to verify that papers are worth publication. It is a good system but some involved in this controversy attempted to manipulate it. Referring to two papers in opposition Mann wrote, “I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!"

The hush is on elsewhere as well. At the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen, video journalist Phelim McAleer asked Professor Stephen Schneider about the Climategate issue. Schneider's response was to call in armed guards to have McAleer thrown out and threaten to confiscate the camera with the evidence.

Two of the most important pillars of science are integrity of data and open discussion of results. Jones, Mann, and their cohorts appear to have attacked both of those pillars. And considering how dependent climate scientists around the world have been on their data, they have cast doubt on the entire theory of man-made global warming. We have to wonder, if man-made global warming is so clear, why did they need to twist and purge data? Usually people only do that to bolster a weak case.

This is a serious problem. We must remember that in Aesop's fable, a wolf did later appear and that time the villagers failed to respond to the boy's cries for help. If scientists are caught corrupting their data we will not believe their false claims. However we are also likely to reject their claims even when true. Climategate does not disprove the global warming theory but it does put it in serious doubt. If global warming is a real problem, Jones, Mann et al have done serious damage to our ability to deal with it. Whether it is a problem or not, they have done serious damage to science as a whole.

We need to find people with impeccable integrity and the scientific ability to do the job. Than those people must be tasked to review the entire body of climate data and determine what is true, what may be true and what is false. Only such an effort will restore our faith in science on this important issue.

Personal Note: I’ll be taking some time off for Christmas so probably will not post anything here for a couple of weeks. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, or if you don’t celebrate either of those, I wish you an enjoyable season in any case.

If you like my blog, please tell others.
If you don't like it, please tell me.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Health Care – Something's Missing, Part 3

My last two postings have discussed how we need citizens who can dig down deep and come up with the heart, the guts, the tenacity to do the seemingly impossible. We need men and women who won’t quit, who will overcome the obstacles to preserving and improving our way of life.

However there is another important aspect of this, only briefly mentioned in those posts. We need people who can not only deal with adversity but who can intelligently avoid problems. We face plenty of problems no matter what we do. There is no need to create more, either carelessly or deliberately. A good survivor needs wisdom in addition to guts. That is true whether he is climbing a mountain, running a business or family, or making decisions for an entire country.

Joe Simpson’s survival on Siula Grande was due not only to the extreme guts he showed there but also to making wise decisions under extreme pressure. When he was climbing out of that crevasse he could have easily lost concentration and fallen. Every step upward required decisions on where to place his ice axe and the foot of his one good leg. One mistake and he would have been back at the bottom of the crevasse, with more injuries if he was even still alive.

The ability to make such decisions does not come suddenly when needed. Simpson had long practice in making critical decisions every time he climbed a mountain. He had rich experience deciding if it was safer to wait out a storm or try to outrun it and get to safer terrain, if he should risk a quick descent or go more slowly and carefully at the risk that the sun would make the snow unstable. He had faced literally thousands of such questions during his climbing career. Almost all had potentially serious consequences.

People of the caliber of Joe Simpson do not grow in sheltered lives. They grow as they take responsibility for their own lives. That applies not only to world-class mountaineers but to business owners, employees, parents, and those engaged in every other human endeavor. For most it starts in late childhood when they are allowed to make decisions and live with the results of those decisions. It continues through the teen years as their decisions become more substantial. Finally in their adulthood they become mature and fully human, standing on their own two feet. They recognize what they can and cannot change or control and concentrate their energies on what they can do. That is the type of person we need as citizens.

Of course part of the development of such individuals comes from living with the results of their actions. Such people grow in an atmosphere of self-reliance, a place where there are rewards and consequences for how they decide. The nanny state militates against such growth. People who get rescued from all consequences of their bad decisions learn dependence and bad decision-making. They will need and expect that someone else protect them so they will never grow to fully developed human beings. Nor are they likely to become the productive and wise citizens we need.

“Wait a minute Lillywhite,” you say. “You are in search and rescue. You protect people from the consequences of their actions by rescuing them. Why do you do that?”

Actually it is only partly true that we protect people from the consequences of their actions. In wilderness rescues nobody can completely do that. Some subjects of our missions are seriously injured or even die. Sadly, others are found deceased or not found at all. Even those rescued uninjured have usually spent a miserable time before we arrive. The most we can do is provide an imperfect safety net to help avoid the worst consequences of their mistakes or bad luck.

There is a difference between a safety net and a nanny state that takes over people’s lives. The health care “reforms” seem to be aimed at a complete takeover of one aspect of our lives. That will develop dependence and militate against independent thought and good decision-making.

The fact is that most of us are faced with important decisions that we must make under pressure, even in non-emergency situations. Learning to make those decisions wisely will prepare us for more urgent decisions we may face later. This can start quite early; the teen who refuses to give in to peer pressure to cheat in school or to drive dangerously will be better prepared if he later faces the pressure of a wilderness accident or managing a company threatened by poor business conditions. Should he become a successful politician he will be more able to resist pressure from special interests or other politicians.

We need to encourage people to face the consequences of their decisions. That means allowing them to suffer those consequences except in the worst cases.

If you like my blog, please tell others.
If you don't like it, please tell me.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Health Care – Something's Missing, Part 2

Last time I wrote about the need to develop guts, heart, or whatever we chose to call it. It is the inner strength that we can use to overcome obstacles, sometimes when it appears that all hope is lost. I make no pretense of being able to give you that strength; you have to develop it yourself. However it is useful to study those who had such guts and how they used that tenacity. Gonzales' book, Deep Survival gives us many examples and describes the actions of those people.

(I should mention one difference in recommendations between Gonzales and myself. He seems to advocate that those lost or injured in the backcountry try to get out on their own. That is appropriate for those cases where rescue is unlikely. However in most of the contiguous 48 states I believe it is usually better for a lost or seriously injured person to wait for rescue if someone knows approximately where you are. However in my book, Bringing Yourself Back Alive I also advocate positive action on the part of the lost or injured person. He should take action to protect himself, and to help searchers. However if he is not seriously injured or lost he should try to get himself out.)

The survivors Gonzales describes do not waste much time feeling sorry for themselves. Feeling abused is a natural human reaction but is not helpful in such situations. Survivors work through that stage quickly, then get on to something productive. Neither do they panic, instead they think carefully about what they should do. Then they set about doing it, no matter how long it takes or how difficult it is.

Joe Simpson broke his leg descending Siula Grande in Peru. With great difficulty he and his partner started working their way back to camp, with Simpson hopping on one leg or being lowered with a rope by his partner. Things were starting to look manageable – until Simpson fell over a cliff, landing on a snow bridge in a crevasse. His partner could not see him and was forced to cut the rope. Simpson knew his partner would think he was dead and would have to go on alone. He was on his own, in a crevasse with a broken leg. It was impossible to climb out of the crevasse from that snow bridge. Yet he got himself out of that crevasse, broken leg and all and finally managed to get back to camp in time to meet the donkeys that carried their gear (and Simpson) out of the mountains. Had he not gotten himself to camp he would have died where was and his body probably would never have been found.*

Simpson's struggle is instructive. He could have quit after determining that he could not climb up from the snow bridge. However he refused to either give up or panic. Instead he used his brain, noticing a snow pyramid in another part of the crevasse. He lowered himself to the bottom, drug his body to that pyramid, and climbed it to escape. His ordeal was not over, he was still a long way from camp but he didn't give up. He passed his gut check and lived.

Simpson's actions are a good example of reasoned planning, intelligent seeking for a solution, and dogged determination when all seemed lost. That is the kind of backbone we need in our citizens.

Joe Simpson did not develop his tenacity by having someone else meet his needs. Like all survivors he had overcome difficulties before. What will happen when U.S. citizens start looking to government for our needs? We will become a nation of sheeple. We will lose the independence and tenacity that have stood us so well in the past. We will fail the “gut check.” We will not have that extra something inside that is so necessary in any stressful situation, not only in survival cases. Employees and managers will give up easily, harming our economy. Parents will give up easily, harming the coming generation. Spouses will give up easily, leading to broken homes, female poverty and problem children. Whistle blowers will give in to fear and allow corruption to continue.

If we turn our health care over to the “Big Brother” of government it will be one more step towards removing our self-reliance and becoming sheeple instead of the fully developed human beings we should be. We will continue to have human bodies, but we will have sheep-like characters.

*Simpson describes this in his book, Touching the Void. It is also briefly described in Gonzales' book.

If you like my blog, please tell others.
If you don't like it, please tell me.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Day That Does Not Live in Infamy

[Note: Since today is Pearl Harbor day I am posting this Monday instead of Tuesday. I’m also interrupting the “Health Care – Something’s Missing” sequence. I plan to return to that series on Friday.]

The fighter planes, dive bombers, and torpedo planes dropped out of the clouds over the 2800-foot Koolau Range. Surprise was complete. Strafing fighters knocked out the U.S. planes before they could get off the ground. Bombers and torpedo planes sunk every warship in Pearl Harbor. Then the attackers returned to their carriers and escaped.

You almost certainly never heard of that attack. No it did not happen on December 7, 1941. It took place on February 7, 1932. The attackers were under the command of U.S. Admiral H. E. Yarnell and of course the bombs and other weapons were simulated, part of a war game.* That day that does not live in infamy – but it should.

The sad fact is that Yarnell’s operation offered some lessons that our naval authorities missed. The Japanese attack in 1941 was a near duplicate of that simulation. Both were on Sunday when defenses were down, both used the same pattern of attack, even using clouds over the same mountain range to conceal their approach. However the Japanese bombs and torpedoes were real and in 1941 the ships were sunk in reality instead of in simulation.

What was the reaction of the admiralty? Some officers saw the lesson and wanted to incorporate it into naval operations. They were overruled. The navy remained organized around battleships and cruisers, with aircraft carriers as a stepchild. Worse, decision-makers ignored the possibility that the Japanese might copy Yarnell’s plan.

The Japanese did not ignore it. Their spies were watching and reports quickly made their way to Tokyo. Those reports may have played a part in Yamamoto’s planning (though there were other sources he may also have used). What is clear is that U.S. involvement in World War II would have started very differently had our authorities learned from Yarnell’s operation and taken measures to defend against such an attack in a real war. The total lack of preparation for air attack made it easy for the Japanese.

That day in 1932 should live in infamy because of U.S. refusal to learn the obvious lessons. Furthermore it should live in infamy as a reminder to each of us that we are subject to similar blind spots. That is part of being human.

The fact is that we do not see the world as it is, the world is much too complicated for that. Our minds filter what we perceive so that we see only what seems important to us. A group of Harvard psychologists demonstrated this by showing a video of basketball players passing the ball. They asked people to count the number of passes made. During the video either a woman with an umbrella or a man in a gorilla costume would walk through the action. Only half noticed the gorilla and only 65% noticed the woman. Those distractions were not necessary to the task so many people filtered them out.

No, we don’t see the world as it is, we see a model of that world. Our mind creates that model by paying selective attention to what we regard as important. That is the only manner we can make sense of this world. So it has always been, and so it will always be unless we somehow become omniscient. The difference between success and failure is not whose model contains the greatest amount of information. It is not even necessarily whose model is most accurate. No, that difference is whose model is most accurate in characteristics relevant to the issue at hand.

Air power was not an important part of the model held by U.S. Navy decision-makers so they filtered out Yarnell’s success. Their model of warfare had been effective during World War I but the world had changed. Following the standard procedure of using the time between wars to learn how to fight the last war better, U.S. commanders ignored important information. Failure to incorporate that information into their model led to disaster.

So what does a failure from 77 years ago have to do with us today? The answer is that human nature has not changed. We still see only our own model of the world and human nature still militates against changing that model. Each of us has a model of the world, correct in some regards, incorrect in others, and simply not including other parts of the world. This affects how we live our individual, family, and work lives. It also affects how we vote and how those we elect govern us. Parents, employees, managers, politicians. All see their own model of the world, not the real world itself. Those models are all imperfect. The effectiveness of their decisions depends on how those imperfections fit with important aspects of those decisions. If the errors in the model are important to their decisions, they will have no choice but to make bad decisions.

Can we overcome this problem? Not completely but we can do better. Gonzales book, Deep Survival, points out that survivors are people who are willing to recognize the imperfections in their model of the world, and to change that model to fit new information. Those who refuse to do this may get by but are setting themselves up for disaster when their model does not match important aspects of reality. Sowell in his book, The Vision of the Anointed, makes a similar point about political life. He points out that many with the “unconstrained vision” simply refuse to admit that they might be wrong. It is not that their model is faulty, that happens to everybody. Their problem is that they do not adapt their model of the world to available information. Like the navy brass after 1932, they continue down the path to disaster.

What can we do about all this? Perfection is not available to humans so we have to do the best we can. That means recognizing that our models of the world are imperfect and always will be. However it also includes continually improving in those models by seeking and accepting new information. We can also insist that politicians do the same. Only in that way can we improve how we see the world with consequent improvement in our decisions and lives.

*My source is Edwin Muller’s article, “The Inside Story of Pearl Harbor, Reader’s Digest, April 1944 reprinted in Secrets & Spies, Reader’s Digest Association, 1964. Several shorter but more readily available accounts can be found by a web search for “1932 Pearl Harbor Attack.”

If you like my blog, please tell others.
If you don’t like it, please tell me.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Health Care – Something's Missing (Part 1)

In all the discussion about health care reform we've left out something important. The major discussion has been about cost and affordability. Less attention has been paid to the question of exactly what should be covered. Those are important of course. However there is one aspect of those plans that has been ignored: it's effect on the character of our citizens. If the reform becomes law, what will the citizen of tomorrow be like?

Let's consider the type of person who made this country what it is today. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Thomas Edison, Martin Luther King, Jr. All those and more had one thing in common: they took thoughtful action. They did not sit around moaning that “somebody should do something.” They did not depend on government, charity, or their neighbors for their needs. Instead they invested their own time, energy, and resources in causes they believed in. That was often done at the risk of wealth, health, or even life. Where would we be without the country they created for us? More importantly, where will we be in 20 or 100 years if we fail to develop more such people today? And I am convinced that nanny state measures like the proposed “reforms” will militate against developing such heroes.

Our history is one of people who overcame obstacles, whether those obstacles were the British army, winters of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, Jim Crow laws, or scientific challenges. Sam Walter Foss expressed the poetic wish, “Bring me men to match my mountains, Bring me men to match my plains, Men with empires in their purpose, And new eras in their brains"* His wish has been granted by men and women who matched the mountains of war, bigotry, many diseases, science and technology, and other challenges our citizens have tackled. Many of those mountains remain challenging but those people gave us a good start. They did that by relying on themselves, not waiting for others to solve the problem.

Where will we get the Edisons, the Bartons, the Washingtons of the future? I fear that our developing nanny state will produce sheep-like excuses for humans (often called sheeple) who wait to be cared for when we should be producing men and women who stand up on their hind legs and take action.

That is one of the biggest problems with government-provided health care and other largesse. We cannot grow independence by fostering dependence. We cannot develop men and women of action by molly-coddling our citizens. No, the independent thinker, the person willing and able to advance both himself and his fellowman must be grown in the crucible of self-reliance and difficulty.

I recently read the book, Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. That book describes traits of survivors, people who overcame great odds to stay alive. Those are the same characteristics we need to meet other problems we face. Those same characteristics are required for people who would make a difference in our family, public, or business life. Those are people who act for themselves. If trapped in a mountain accident they take action to rescue themselves. If shipwrecked they take the lead in solving the problem. If stranded by aircraft or automotive problems they do all that is possible (and often more that we would think possible) to get themselves out of the problem.

Gonzales indicates that the main determinant of who lives and who dies is not what's in his pack. It's not even what's in his head. It is what is in his heart. This is what athletes often call guts. A team behind as time is running out is said to be facing a gut check, a chance to see if they can dig down and find that extra something that will pull out a victory. Those who survive near death experiences face a similar gut check. They have to dig down inside themselves and produce that extra effort to win against the Grim Reaper.

We face similar needs in every aspect of our lives. For example, consider the remaining bigotry in our country. The easy part of that battle was eliminating legal barriers. That is done. Now we face the task of changing minds and hearts, something we cannot legislate. We can sit back and wish, or we can say “somebody should do something,” but if that’s all we do we will make no further progress. However if we have the courage to confront the bigots, to befriend those others regard as inferior, we will continue to make progress. That may require that we risk alienation from friends, family, even employers when we speak up. We may even risk having our property vandalized or our persons harmed. It will take courage, and that courage must be developed by courageous action.

That is the same kind of courage that will allow a soldier to dig down inside for what he needs to fight a terrorist a little harder. It is the same kind of courage that will allow a government or business official to risk his job and expose corruption. It is the same kind of courage a parent needs to care for a disabled child or to discipline a child who is starting to engage in antisocial behavior. It is the courage, the guts, this country needs to preserve our freedom and continue to improve our lives. It is a courage that cannot be developed by asking government to meet all our needs.

(To be continued)

*Perhaps another danger sign is the fact that the beginning of that poem was once displayed on a granite wall at our Air Force Academy. It was removed in 2003 for fear of offending women, and that in spite of some female Air Force officers asking that the words remain in place. Can we really build on the foundation our fathers gave us if we are diverted by such trivialities? It is sad, even dangerous, that some prefer political correctness to such inspiring words.

If you like my blog, please tell others.
If you don't like it, please tell me.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Emergency Response

Gina was shocked to learn why the previous occupants had moved out of their isolated rental house. It was because the wife had been raped there – and the rapist was still at large. To make matters worse, Gina’s husband often traveled for his work. Knowing that she might have to defend herself, she planned exactly how to do it. That included easy access to the butcher knife and thinking about what she would do with that knife.

Sure enough, within a few weeks someone tried to break in while her husband was away. Now was the time to act and she did – she got on the phone and called her sister who lived 40 miles away! She did not call 911. She did not grab the knife. She avoided being raped only because the assailant gave up before getting the door open.*

Don't laugh too hard. If you are human it is quite possible that you might make a similar mistake. We've had lost people with cell phones call their friends instead of 911. Then the friends have to find the right agency to call before a search can be started. Worse, without direct communication between the sheriff's office and the subject it can be difficult, sometimes impossible, to get the information we need for a timely rescue.

Just last week a local sheriff’s office got a call from someone in California. The caller’s friend had gone snowboarding and was lost somewhere on the south side of Mount Hood. However nobody knew where the subject’s car was parked, or which ski area she had started from. Without that information it is difficult to search effectively. It was not possible to reach the subject’s cell phone for unknown reasons (maybe she turned it off to save the battery). We weren’t even completely sure we had a lost person. Fortunately she was eventually found. (That event, by the way, is my motivation for writing this column.)

I've also had neighbors come to me for first aid assistance before they call 911. I don't mind, I am highly trained in the skill. However I am not as highly trained as the ambulance or fire truck crews, nor do I have the equipment they do. Besides I'm not always home while those professionals are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. My neighbors would be better off to call 911.

The psychology behind that type of error illustrates an obstacle to sound decision-making, especially under stress. Our right brain often leads us to act without thinking (cf The right brain provides great help in dealing with every-day situations but is terrible at handling new problems. In those cases we should always check it against the logical left brain.

Fortunately most of us seldom face real emergencies. However seldom does not mean never. Most of us will face a few urgent problems during our lives. It may be an intruder in our homes, a traffic accident, a serious wound from a kitchen knife, or something else. It may even be an excited young couple when their first child is about to arrive. How do we calm ourselves enough to take appropriate action rather than acting in a panic?

One way is to practice ahead of time. When my wife and I were expecting our first child we went to classes that not only taught us what to expect, but also allowed us to practice what we should do. We even practiced driving to the hospital. Of course it’s a bit more difficult to practice what to do in a home invasion or traffic accident but the good news is that practice in one type of emergency tends to help prepare for other, seemingly unrelated, emergencies. A good first aid course will teach, and allow you to practice, the technique of looking and thinking about scene safety before exposing yourself. If that is done with gory fake victims it can help prepare the mind to check with the left brain before acting in other situations. Professional responders practice all sorts of situations until the correct response comes naturally to them. Most of us don’t have the time to do that, but we can improve.

Had Gina practiced calling 911 (with the phone turned off) and grabbing her butcher knife she would have been more likely to act appropriately when the emergency actually happened.

Another good technique is to just practice slowing down and thinking in daily life when our right brain tells us we just must have or do something. Is it really urgent to eat that piece of pie or cake? Do we really need to hurry and tell our neighbor the latest news? Such practice will accustom the mind to checking in with both right and left brains.

Then of course when we do feel stress or think something is an emergency we can make every effort to see if what we are about to do is really the right course of action. That will help us make better decisions, both in everyday life and in emergencies.

If we can discipline ourselves to check our emotions with against our logic we will make better decisions, in times of stress and at other times. That will give us better lives.

*I heard this account from the woman involved. I’ve changed her name to protect her privacy.

If you like my blog, please tell others.
If you don't like it, please tell me.