An Opinion: Challenges for the decision makers

By Dr Morgan Morrow, NCSU Swine Extension - Life is full of challenges, and in today's world we seem to suffer from information overload. To me, it seems we have more and more information about things we don't really care for and less and less critical information about things that require an informed decision. This is particularly noticeable when issues become controversial and people's livelihoods and core beliefs are challenged.
calendar icon 21 June 2004
clock icon 6 minute read

Dr Morgan Morrow
Swine Veterinary Specialist

It is important to understand the nature of those who come to the fore in these debates. Advocates often initiate the discussion with an impassioned plea to right some newly recognized wrong, outlining the case and providing information with which to sway an audience. Then the other side in the battle is marshaled, and very soon both sides bring out their scientists. Brave souls then must sort through the advocates' claims and the scientists' facts. Who has the time to do this kind of analysis? Whom do you believe?

For instance, advocates "know" that feeding antibiotics to food animals is wrong because it leads to a buildup of antibiotic-resistant human pathogens, with consequent unnecessary human suffering and death. By contrast, a scientist may believe there is a wide range of resistance patterns in both humans and food animals but may not believe there is sufficient evidence to accept that the presence of antibiotic resistance in humans is caused by the development of antibiotic resistance in animals. In other words, a bad day for scientists is when they find out that what they think they have proven turns out to be wrong, whereas a bad day for advocates is when they find out that had they done SOMETHING, they could have prevented an (inter)national disaster.

Further complicating the picture for people trying to decide is that often the scientist and the advocate are the same person, either choosing to advance their scientific findings or using their scientific background and knowledge to advance what they believe is right (as opposed to actually having the data to prove their position is the correct one). And that is the difference between a scientific approach and the tack taken by an advocate. When deciding what to do, scientists are full of self-doubt and provisos; on the other hand, advocates see a clear path and believe you are a fool for not seeing it as clearly as they.

Pity the poor decision-makers trying to struggle through this morass of information. The problem is that they must make a decision (even if it is to do nothing), and they can't afford the luxury of waiting to be 95 percent confident that it is the correct decision. That is a luxury reserved for the scientists.

One of the biggest jobs for decision-makers is sorting through myriad sources and formulating a decision best suited to the current opportunity. In that process, personal experiences are invaluable, but often of limited scope, and, therefore, carry an inherent bias.

Newspaper journalists and those in the popular press can be valuable sources of information, but, of course, their vested interest is in selling their publications; and we all know that sensationalism sells. Consider the fear of death generated among consumers when BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or "mad cow" disease) was discovered in Washington state in December 2003, in contrast to the ongoing (therefore mundane) loss of life from human influenza. From October 2003 to January 6, 2004, a total of 93 influenza-associated deaths among children younger than 18 years old were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In contrast, no one has yet died in the United States from eating BSE-contaminated beef. Of course, they may, and that is where the scientists' data are invaluable. You can usually trust scientists, but you must listen carefully. Are they speaking as scientists, or are they advocating a position they passionately believe in? Of course, scientists, as people, have a right to be advocates, provided they make the distinction clear. If they don't make that distinction (and few do), you have to examine their claims critically to determine if they have the data to support their position. If you don't want to be caught with your pants down, you must pay more attention to advocates because they "know" what the future holds, and they just might be right.

Complicating the decision about whom to trust is a disturbing trend—the privatization of information and the dependence of scientists on research money from vested interests (e.g., drug companies). Conflicts of interest arise in the government arena, and for readers of Swine News, the role of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in protecting the public from BSE while still serving the cattle industry is a prime concern. While a potential conflict of interest is often obvious when large public institutions are involved, a conflict of interest when a privately funded scientist is involved can be difficult to discover. Disclosure by the scientist in such situations is the only ethical, moral, and responsible course.

Part of the difficulty for the decision-maker is that many don't know how to actually make a decision. In business, the science of decision making is an emerging discipline, and many still mistrust it. Daniel Kahneman, who shared a Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work in the field of economics, has validated many of the principles we intuitively understand about decisions-making. One is that when left to their own devices, decision-makers are usually overly optimistic (What do you mean the stock market won't keep going up?). This is not to say that optimism is bad, because it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy … but, it is risky behavior. Another principle is that a fresh idea can assume overriding importance and cloud the decision-maker's mind when a more experienced manager would be more skeptical and make a more determined effort to establish the idea's true value. Alternatively, too much familiarity and experience also can be detrimental when they lead decision-makers stubbornly to refuse to acknowledge the obvious.

Perhaps Kahneman's most important finding is that most people spend proportionally too much time on small decisions and not enough time on big ones. His findings show that some companies put as much effort into planning a Christmas party as into considering a strategic merger.

In summary, the decision-maker has a difficult job sorting through the chaff that litters the public forum today. The only solution is for an individual to understand his biases and the forces at play—the vested interests, the passion of the advocates and their fear of doing nothing, the hesitancy of the scientists and their fear of being wrong—and bravely come to a decision. Recognizing that one does not have to be 95 percent confident that the decision is right can be a great relief.

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Source: North Carolina State University Swine Extension - June 2004
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