Maybe Big Problems Need Small Solutions
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
Last week's New Yorker contained this mind-opening piece by Atul Gawande, who argues that muddling through with small-bore trial projects is not a bad response to the crisis in U.S. health care.
"Where we crave sweeping transformation,'' he writes, "all the current [Senate] bill offers is those pilot programs, a battery of small-scale experiments. The strategy seems hopelessly inadequate to solve a problem of this magnitude. And yet—here’s the interesting thing—history suggests otherwise.''
The history Gawande refers to here is the transformation of American agriculture in the last century. In 1900, he recounts, 40 cents of every dollar earned went to pay for food and farms were woefully unproductive--a serious brake on economic growth. Other industrializing societies had the same problem. The American solution was to enact no sweeping program or social revolution, but rather to bumble through with ad hoc programs--some to protect farmers from the effects of change and others to find and encourage the spread of techniques that improved efficiency. It had none of the ideological satisfaction or intellectual coherence of a Big Solution. But it worked. Today, food takes 8 cents from every dollar of family income, and our main food problem is obesity.
Gawande is suggesting, I think, that we all need to fight an impulse to think big troubles need proportionately big solutions. In agriculture, big, intellectually coherent, widely-applied and simple solutions-- the collective agriculture of Communist regimes -- were colossal failures that caused millions of deaths.
Might the same idea apply to other grand challenges, like climate change? Our instincts say no, because it is a global problem, that affects everyone. However, it doesn't affect everyone equally. And it certainly isn't caused equally by all people. Maybe it's not so bad to have a patchwork of responses for a few decades, until we can sort out what works in which situations. The campaign for a coherent and simple global answer, after all, has been better at provoking total denial than it has at advancing long term answers.
How a cataclysm worse than what killed the dinosaurs destroyed 90 percent of all life on Earth.
While the demise of the dinosaurs gets more attention as far as mass extinctions go, an even more disastrous event called "the Great Dying” or the “End-Permian Extinction” happened on Earth prior to that. Now scientists discovered how this cataclysm, which took place about 250 million years ago, managed to kill off more than 90 percent of all life on the planet.
A new study discovers the “liking gap” — the difference between how we view others we’re meeting for the first time, and the way we think they’re seeing us.
We tend to be defensive socially. When we meet new people, we’re often concerned with how we’re coming off. Our anxiety causes us to be so concerned with the impression we’re creating that we fail to notice that the same is true of the other person as well. A new study led by Erica J. Boothby, published on September 5 in Psychological Science, reveals how people tend to like us more in first encounters than we’d ever suspect.
Using advanced laser technology, scientists at NASA will track global changes in ice with greater accuracy.
Leaving from Vandenberg Air Force base in California this coming Saturday, at 8:46 a.m. ET, the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 — or, the "ICESat-2" — is perched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, and when it assumes its orbit, it will study ice layers at Earth's poles, using its only payload, the Advance Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS).
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