Total Pageviews

Friday, May 28, 2010

The failure of success

It is really annoying. If you succeed you fail. Take the recent swine flue epidemic. There are good reasons to believe that if you slow down the spread of a virus, you keep it from becoming lethal. Conversely, if a virus spreads very quickly, it is much more likely to become deadly. Ways to slow the spread of a virus include isolation of someone showing the symptoms and isolation of their contacts; by vaccination and by contracting the virus in its non lethal form before it becomes deadly. Both vaccination and immunization by contracting the disease confer a degree of what is termed herd immunity. All the people who have contracted the disease or have been vaccinated can't catch the flue and from the virus' point of view, there is  now a smaller, more spread out population. Isolation also ensures fewer contacts. With this latest 2009 virus, when it first hit, the only people who had immunity were survivors of the 1918 epidemic and there are not many of these around. Both isolation and vaccination were practiced and it is just possible that these measures kept the virus reasonably benign. It is estimated that about a quarter of the population of New Zealand contracted the virus in 2009 on its first pass and so are now immune to the second pass. So where is the failure.

If the measures put in place by the health officials succeed and the flue doesn't become deadly; if it doesn't kill lots of people, everyone says they have over reacted with the measures they took. The poor health officials can't win. The danger, of course, is that next time a virus occurs for which the human population has no immunity, we will have a cry wolf situation. The officials will react much more casually and the new flue will cause mayhem.

Incidentally, in the 1918 flue a very strange phenomenon was observed. Instead of slaying the very young and the very old, the H1N1 flue killed healthy middle aged people. The reason proposed to explain this was as follows. It is likely that the flue came through the world's populations in 1917. Young and old are more prone to contracting viruses but it was not deadly then. It mutated and came through again in 1918. The young and old had immunity because they already had contracted a mild form of the disease. Middle aged people died in droves.

For another example of the failure of success look at the recent economic crisis which we are arguably still in the middle of. The Governments of the world took extraordinary measures to stave off a 1930's type depression and they succeeded - at least so far (as of June 2010). Here the problem is as serious as a deadly swine flue. Because the crisis pretty well went away, no one really believes in their gut that we have had a depression. Some lost their jobs but by and large, life carried on much as before the crash. Now we see the phenomenon of banks behaving just as they did before the crisis, executives voting themselves and each other huge bonuses as they did before and excessive consumption using easy credit beginning to build up. My parents came through the 1930 depression and it totally colored their perceptions. Following the depression, they saved, bought when they had enough money, were very careful of every penny and in short behaved with a high degree of fiduciary responsibility. How different from our behavior today. We really needed a deep hard nasty depression to wake people up. It may yet come. Because we succeeded in staving off a depression, we failed to alter peoples actions which would have staved off the next depression.Link

For a third example, consider the beaver. If you have beavers in the catchment, the water from heavy rain events is held on the land, replenishes ground water and slowly seeps down hill through soil and streams making the streams flow clear and clean during long periods of drought. Floods are prevented and so don't wipe out bridges, streams don't run dry, water table don't drop drastically and wild life and salmon runs are nurtured. Kill off all the beavers as was done in North America and who will make the connection between the beavers and the previous good conditions. Bring beavers back and the same is true. Who but a hydrologist with rain fall and flood peak data will realize that ten years ago, before the beavers returned, the same intensity of rain washed the town away while now it is a not event. Humans have blind spots.

The answer is of course science. A system of careful observation and self correction that works out the connections between cause and effect. However it is much less visceral and the public for some reason is loosing its belief that science has the answers. This in spite of the fact that virtually everything around us that removes our life from living out in the open or in a tree is science/technology.  A fourth  example of the failure of success.

No comments: