The Corner

Analysis as Rhetoric

Why are airplane pilots so much more focused on avoiding error than doctors? Because doctors don’t go down with their patients.

Arnold Kling has a post up about a dinner in Washington earlier this week discussing some of the ideas in my forthcoming book. My book argues, among other things, that it would be useful if we tested government programs much harder before implementing them than we do now. Kling was very kind to the ideas in the book, but says this:

I believe that decision-makers will resist this approach, for the same reason that they resist Robin Hanson’s suggestion to use prediction markets. That is, decisions are not necessarily about achieving results. They are often about establishing the status of the decision-maker. For a decision-maker to conduct experiments or to employ prediction markets is to admit ignorance and doubt, which lowers the decision-maker’s status.

I agree that this is true, and is a big deal. In the book, I expend a fair amount of effort describing the procedures and methods that have been used to ameliorate this problem (though never eliminate it) in therapeutic medicine, many large businesses, and certain narrow areas of government policy development. 

I think at a more strategic level, however, this problem is best addressed by decentralizing authority and accountability. Staff businesspeople, academics, and so on have much larger incentives to use “analysis as rhetoric” in the manner that Kling refers to than do people who are responsible for achieving outcomes in a marketplace. If I am paid (or live or die) based on my programs working or not, I am much more likely to care about what really works rather than getting tangled up in what analysis will get me noticed and promoted. Pilots care about signaling their status, but they usually care a whole lot more about surviving until retirement.

I think that this idea dovetails nicely with Kling’s recent book that argues for the power of “exit over voice.”

Jim Manzi is CEO of Applied Predictive Technologies (APT), an applied artificial intelligence software company.


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