The irony of secret choices, part deux

Last week I inexplicably detoured into an analysis of the 1960 lectures titled, “Science and Government,” in which British author C.P. Snow teaches us how a vegetarian crackpot advised Winston Churchill to bomb working-class German civilians during World War II, which turned out to be as militarily ineffective as it was morally indefensible. Snow used these lectures to illustrate what he considered to be the irony that, as societies become more scientifically complex, “the cardinal choices have to be made by a handful of men: in secret.” (Click to read that blog entry.)

Let us first of all forgive Snow for using “men” where he should have said “people” (though I would frankly love to have seen a blood workup that revealed Margaret Thatcher’s estrogen-testosterone balance). Secondly let us forgive Tom Abate, the fingers and brains behind MiniMediaGuy, for failing to explain why he took this aside: hoping to attend a symposium in February on “The Future of Science Journalism“ Tom is being introspective about his favorite form of journalism (FYI, today Tom’s birthday, on which he permits himself the one-day, poetic licence to use the royal “We.”).

In any event I had to pause that essay before I had time to dispute the lesson Snow would have us take away from his discussion of the secret meetings where wartime scientific decisions were made. Snow says participants in what he called such “closed politics” lacked the foresight to understand the ramifications of their actions. Thus there would be a considerable amount of luck involved in outcomes, the sort of luck that springs from having a leader who chooses honest and sober advisers versus synchophants or fools. Scientists, Snow thought, would be more likely to bring such foresight to these secret decisions. “That is why I want some scientists mixed up in our affairs,” Snow concluded — somehow failing to realize that his own essay undermined his conclusion, because the villian of his own WWII was a scientist, who just happened to have what history suggests is terribly bad judgment.

I think Snow soft-pedaled his own point. “Science and Government” teaches us something brilliant and scary about the modern world. What his lectures calls closed politics — arguments conducted behind closed doors — we should call bureaucratic politics. And such bureaucratic decisions happen in every corporation, every institution and every grouping of human beings. And the fear we should have is that that the decision-makers lack foresight, but rather that they lack character and the courage of their convictions. The decision-makers know that putting the gas tank at the back of the Pinto will cause explosions; but it seems more cost-effective at the time than retooling the assembly line. The decision-makers know that the evidence of Iraqi WMDs is very thin and more likely wrong than right but no one resigns to protest the war that results from the trumpeting of lies.

As I thought about the importance of bureaucratic politics in modern life I realized that Snow had articulated an incredible truth that should teach us all why the world is as it is, and what each of us needs to do to make it better. All the important decisions are made in closed doors — how much should the school district budget allocate to administration versus teacher’s salaries or school supplies; should we use formaldehyde in the product even though it might cause dangerous fumes; should our Web 2.0 startup put cookies on users’ computers and how how should we use and/or resell such information; how do we calculate the cost/benefit of nanotechnolgies, and who understands the details of such debates?

In each instance technical decisions must be made by professionals who may never step into the public eye, whose judgments must be influenced by their own desire for reward and or fear of retribution, as well as their own sense of right and wrong. Somewhere along the chain of any decision that is later revealed or judged to have been wrong, either morally or technically or both, stands some person who did not do the right thing. And more worrisome perhaps to me is that in any of the cases where that person did stand up and put a stop to the foolishness, or at least tried to, we’d have no way to know and no way to reward that person. They acted out of character, which is how we behave when we think no one is looking.

So I think, as does Snow, that the most important decisions are made in secret by people who may never fully understand the ramifications of their actions. But what they need is not foresight which is beyond human ken but character which is a trait each of us can bring to the decisions we make in our lives.