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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Making Better Decisions in an Uncertain World

Planet Earth, the only place we call our home, is confounding, complex and inexplicable, mostly opaque to precise understanding. Our capacity to understand with certainty and intervene precisely in the world has been the quest of the ages. As scientists we are trained to simplify things in order to understand them.. This is our folly.

Science has made progress by narrowly framing a range of allowable questions and having consensus on the rules that permit the inquirer to arrive at precise answers. This philosophical heritage, which has been termed reductionism, denigrates modes of inquiry outside conventional ranges of allowable questions.

Science is the basis of the material culture, which characterizes our world. Science evidence is also the primary paradigm of legitimation for our debates and policy prescriptions. As we have come to understand, especially in the last two centuries, decision-making is not the exclusive territory of an exact science. Problems for which, we often need urgent solutions are characterized by situations where facts are incomplete, knowledge is uncertain, values are culturally and  ideologically contested and decision stakes are high. In such settings, methods that rely on precise, unambiguous scientific assessments are woefully constrained and there is need to accommodate more pluralistic approaches to knowing in constructing our understanding of the world.

Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz, authors of the book Uncertainty and Quality in Science Policy, advanced the use the term post-normal science to characterize an approach to inquiry where important facts are uncertain or unknowable, values are contested, stakes are high and decisions are urgent. With its assumption of perfection and an attitude of exactitude, traditional science is inadequate as tool for decision-making and policy processes in the cotemporary world.

In the sense of Funtowicz and Ravetz, inquiry must be an act of collaborative learning and knowledge integration, where the role of the expert is not about giving correct advise but sharing information about options, plausible outcomes and trade-offs. In this frame, reductionism and uncertainty are not marginalized but appended as critical dimensions of a broader decision frame an incorporated into a richer but less predictive understanding of the world.

The notion of a less predictive understanding of the world must make a lot of people uncomfortable. We are so deeply wired in the action mode and the illusion precision, where nuance and uncertainty are deemed as impotence. This is absolutely understandable especially when you consider that precise diagnosis is necessary for treatment and healing. However, the world we live in complex and messy, facts are incomplete or unknowable.

Nationally and globally, decision makers have to grapple with urgent and consequential decisions on public health, poverty reduction, education, economics, energy, urbanization, agriculture and conservation without the capacity to interrogate or integrate multiple perspectives. Free primary education is a perfect example. While the intent of this novel policy prescription was to expand access, which it does, retention and completion are dismal, early childhood education has suffered and learning outcomes are deplorable. Two logical questions beg; are we getting value for money and could we have anticipated the unintended consequences?

Another example is the huge Gibe III hydropower dam on the Omo River investment by the Ethiopian government and the tacit support for it by the Kenya government and the decision by the World Bank fund transport of the power into Kenya’s grid. The obvious benefit here is huge amounts of new power and revenue  to the Ethiopian exchequer as well as new cheap power to Kenya’s grid. However, these benefits must not overshadow the potentially irreversible ecological damage to Lake Turkana and the annihilation of the delicate balance of livelihoods and cultures of the communities of the Lower Omo and Turkana basin. Another example is the introduction of the Nile Perch in Lake Victoria in the 1950s, a decision now wieldy considered as an unmitigated socio-economic and ecological disaster.

While not a panacea, systems thinking offers insights for decision-making in a complex and uncertain world. Systems thinking is about patterns of relationships, their interactions, feedback and how these generate emergent or hitherto unanticipated behavior or outcomes. Along with systems thinking, decision makers must apply scenario analysis, which consist of simulations of best-and-worst-case outcomes. Hence, the outcomes of policy can be understood and anticipated by planning for all possibilities.

Underlying systems thinking is the premise that systems behave as a whole,  and as Aristotle said, the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. 

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