Friday, June 04, 2010

Brooks does Gladwell 

David Brooks (New York Times, 5/28/10) informs us that the idea that "government should have more control over industry" is one of the "predictably partisan and often puerile" reactions to the oil spill. The lesson that smart people derive from the spill, Brooks says, is "that humans are not great at measuring and responding to risk when placed in situations too complicated to understand."

What follows is, as Matthew Yglesias pointed out (5/28/10), largely cribbed from a 1996 New Yorker essay by Malcolm Gladwell (1/22/96) that argued that "accidents are not easily preventable" because of various psychological pitfalls that humans are prone to--e.g., in Brooks' paraphrase, "people have trouble imagining how small failings can combine to lead to catastrophic disasters," and "people have a tendency to place elaborate faith in backup systems and safety devices."

In other words, it's all very complicated, and what we need to do is work on "helping people deal with potentially catastrophic complexity" so we can "improve the choice architecture."



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