Tuesday, September 22, 2009


George Will on Sunday wrote a short article about the lessons of our failed nation building in Bosnia. If nation-building could ever be successful, we'd expect it to work in Bosnia:
If Bosnia -- situated in placid and prosperous Europe; recipient of abundant aid and attention from the United States, the European Union, NATO and the United Nations -- is so resistant to nation-building, what are sensible expectations for a similar project in remote, mountainous, tribal Afghanistan?
The lesson should be that we didn't simply make the wrong decisions and now we've learned from it and we'll do it all correctly the next time. The lesson really should be that nation-building has never succeeded, and we really don't know what would be necessary to make it succeed and may never know. Even with models of successful nations like the the US or Western Europe, it's still not quite clear what it is that makes these countries successful, let alone what another country would have to do to get there.

On a different topic, Radley Balko yesterday wrote an article at Reason Magazine about Shaken Baby Syndrome. Doctors used to be confident that a triad of symptoms in infant deaths were ironclad evidence that the child had been just prior to death been shaken violently enough to kill the baby. This led to about 200 convictions per year mostly for murder based almost entirely on autopsies which showed the presence of the triad of symptoms. But now those convictions are all suspect:
Where the near-unanimous opinion once held that the SBS triad of symptoms could only result from a shaking with the force equivalent of a fall from a three-story to four-story window, or a car moving at 25 mph to 40 mph (depending on the source), research completed in 2003 using lifelike infant dolls suggested that vigorous human shaking produces bleeding similar to that of only a 2-foot to 3-foot fall. Furthermore, the shaking experiments failed to produce symptoms with the severity of those typically seen in SBS deaths.
SBS misdiagnosis is part of a more general problem, namely that we've quite overrated the reliability of much of our forensic science and thought we had ironclad evidence when in fact such "evidence" had never been subject to rigorous scientific review. We're starting to reevaluate the criteria which we've used to convict suspects.

Both of these are stories of overconfidence quite out of keeping with the available knowledge, and in both cases such overconfidence ruined many lives (also, the hubristic were not among the victims). We all make mistakes and those little foibles make life interesting and tend to be our food for growth. But when it comes to making decisions on great matters in which many lives are at stake, going forward boldly with untested ideas can only be described as hubris. We should remember these stories when we think about the grand plans that people are proposing to make our lives better.

1 comment:

Liberation said...

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