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There’s a strain of reasoning that runs something like this:

  1. A trend is occurring.  (Usually backed by data in charts)
  2. Extrapolating far forward along that trend leads to a very bad result.  (Often uncertain or vague, but definitely bad)
  3. Therefore, we must do something right now.  (Often the specific something is an action the arguer wants to take anyway)

This reasoning is applied to issues such as peak oil, climate change, fiscal deficits, trade deficits, overpopulation, disappearing bees, ozone depletion, etc.  Megan McArdle’s post on antibiotics seems to largely fit the bill.  Note that these issues are not Black Swan-type events; Black Swans are inherently unpredictable.  These problems are White Swans.

Posts about White Swans are often meant to evoke fear and panic, but my sense is that White Swans predictions almost never play out, and the reason they’re prevented has little to do with the proposed solution.  Indeed, any of the following may occur:

  1. The analysis is wrong, and the problem does not exist.  This may be the case with antibiotics, as suggested here (see the fifth chart especially).
  2. There is already a solution or safeguard in place.  This is how I feel about peak oil; the safeguard is pricing mechanisms.
  3. Raising awareness of the problem will lead to it being solved, without taking any policy action.  I’ve argued that this may be how climate change plays out.
  4. The problem requires a solution, and the proposed solution is the best solution.  (searching for examples)
  5. The problem requires a solution, but the proposed solution is not the best solution.  (searching for examples)

Overall, I’d say my thinking boils down to this: if you think there’s a problem that will manifest in 30 years, it’s appropriate to spend the next, say, five years talking about it, instead of rushing to action.

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