Saturday, August 6, 2011

Perspective, Opinion, Information, Decision Making

A while back, I was watching the news as the water levels of the mighty Mississippi were growing dangerously high. The reporter gave a very logical report about what this situation meant. She gave information about how high the water would get, and how very likely, on a specific day, the Army Corps of Engineers would have to release a certain amount of water that was at that point being contained, and how that water would, when released, flood a certain area of cropland, but, how that same release would spare a certain residential town from destruction.  The trade off seemed obvious. Some damage to a few individuals economic well being, versus the loss of everything to a much larger group of people.

Within the week the release of water was completed as prophesied and the cropland was flooded. I saw a piece from the same reporter, from the flooded cropland, and the story was reported completely differently. It was for the most part about the pain and suffering of the farmers with flooded lands and their suspicions that the Army Corps of Engineers was incompetent or uncaring. Vanished from the story was any information about the town that had been saved or even a mention of the fact that it had needed to be saved. Apparently, the town, no longer needing saving, was no longer news worthy but the pain of the farmers and their suspicions were.

This bothered me. While the reporter did not herself accuse the Army Corps of Engineers of anything, she also provided no information to balance the opinions expressed in the interviews with the farmers; her focus was on their pain. It troubled me that someone not having seen the first story could come away with a completely negative opinion of the Corp as a result of not knowing the whole story. It also occurred to me that the story didn’t mention something that I learned in grammar and high schools, namely, that the great rivers flood farmlands on a regular basis and that, this process of flooding deposits a rich layer of silt on the farmlands that regenerates their fertility. I don’t know if this science fact from my early education is still true in the case of the Mississippi. For all I know the process of damming and releasing water may prevent the water from having access to that silt and completely take this rhythm that farmers have counted on for most of human history completely out of the equation, but, I would love to know if these farmers were whining about a short term loss which is really a long term gain.

That said, it’s hard to blame the reporter. This wasn’t an hour long documentary on Mississippi floods and farmland. It was a three minute report from the field on a broadcast of the news of the day and, there was more news that day to be gotten to. The reporter felt the news that day was the pain of the farmers. I’m sure that she hopes that she has a dedicated audience who sees her every day and gets the whole story in daily bits. It does cause me to question the way that most people get their information.

Now, as far as I know, this reporting didn’t cause any problems for anyone. However, I can imagine a scenario in which a political candidate is running for office and saying that the Corp is incompetent and should be dismantled while his opponent is claiming that they would be more competent with more money and that they should have their budget increased. I often wish for a third party with a candidate who says “hey, they did what they were supposed to; let’s leave things as they are.” In that case, people would be being asked to make a decision. If they only had a part of the story, that decision could be made badly. I’d like to say that it’s a bad thing to only be partially informed.

Most of the decisions that we are called upon to make in life are a matter of perspective and point of view. Being human, our perspective and point of view is limited. We only see and know what is right around us. The farmer doesn’t necessarily know or care about the town that was saved and the townsfolk are probably unhappy that some facility is collecting water that can destroy them if the switch isn’t flicked at the right moment… if they are even aware that such a situation exists for them. The situation may be different if people actually were given a choice about the sacrifices that they may have to make for each other and, perhaps it wouldn’t be, people can be selfish or generous. In any event, decisions are made better when the decider has a multitude of perspective and points of view to study.

Given the pace of our daily lives, we are often called upon to make seat of our pants decisions on the fly without a lot of time for study or reflection. In that case we have to trust that we are as well informed as we can be. Whether a decision can be studied first or has to be made quickly, it is to the benefit of ourselves and our kind to be well informed. It is our duty to have as much information as we can on anything that we may have to make a decision on. I hear you cry that there just aren’t enough hours of the day to collect every point of view and perspective and every last scrap of data on anything that may come up. I understand that and am in the same boat but the fact is that being well informed is every bit as important as anything else that we have to do to survive on this planet and in some cases directly impacts our ability to survive in the long and short terms. People who are successful at their jobs have become expert at their jobs. They know what needs to be done and how to go about doing it. Even if there are many options to choose from, their experience allows them to pick the one that is best. People who don’t gain that level of expertise fail. The people who are good at their jobs can be trusted get it right. They gained that experience and expertise through a dedicated effort over a long period of time dealing with any number of possible permutations of situations in which they made mistakes and corrected them. We must be just as dedicated in our personal lives and in the lives of our communities even if it means less time for entertainments and pleasures. The result of not putting in this effort is to always be a pawn of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar who knows we can be manipulated with bread and circuses.

Part of this is being informed not just on facts but on other people’s opinions, points of view, perspectives and emotions, all of which are factors in any decision. I think the best starting place is that of the philosopher Socrates who begins by admitting to himself that he doesn’t’ know the answers and seeks out experts to ask them questions, finds their answers wanting, but learns in the process and never stops asking questions and never admits to having the answers. Thinking that you know the answers creates blind spots to what you may not know. So many people today think that answers to any sort of question are easy; a matter of common sense, but my experience is that there is nothing common about these easy answers. I see that peoples’ easy answers vary by local, culture, ethnicity, religion, family background etc. Recent studies have shown that people tend to make decisions based more on emotion than on reason. To some extent this makes sense as emotional well being is certainly something that we are concerned about but emotions shift considerably moment by moment and this is part of why we may often make decisions based on short term good rather than long term good. The farmer emotionally devastated by the flood of his farmland may well be very concerned about the well being in the people of the town once he’s calmed down and the question is put to him.

Those who are reading this have no excuse for not being well informed given how much information is currently at their finger tips. The only thing holding you back from examining every aspect of any question is desire or lack thereof.