Precautionary thinking

The atmosphere is much too near for dreams. It forces us to action. It is close to us. We are in it and of it. It rouses us both to study and to do. We must know its moods and also its motive forces.
Cleveland Abbe–scientist

From my office (actually just the location of my computer in a converted bedroom), I can see dead leaves in a localized area on our Bartlett Pear tree. This has always been a healthy tree. What could be wrong? Has some previously unknown beetle or borer attacked it? Could it be some form of fungus? Will my tree die?

Could this be a threat to other trees in the area? What if it spread to all the trees in the area; all the trees in the United States? What if they all died? Worse yet, it could spread worldwide; endangering the rainforests. If the rainforests die off the whole world is threatened. Life as we know it would end.

There are only two courses of action open to me. I can immediately call the Environmental Protection Agency so that they can come in and isolate the tree, thereby protecting all the other trees in the area, while simultaneously running computer models to ascertain how fast and how far the spoors from this tree disease could possibly spread.

Or . . . I can walk out to the tree and see what the problem is. In this case, it was a limb broken due to high winds.

The first scenario is precautionary thinking. The second is common sense. Now one can understand all the canceled flights due to volcanic ash: precautionary thinking requiring an immediate computer simulation to tell where the ash is going and in what concentrations. It may inconvenience thousands of people, cost billions of dollars in lost productivity, and have no relationship to reality; but it is so much easier than actually taking air samples to evaluate the degree of threat. Never let common sense get in the way of a good panic.

Published in: on April 20, 2010 at 3:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

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