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Ethics, Epistemology and “Dirty Rotten Strategies”

“The greatest good is the knowledge of the union

which the mind has with the whole of nature.”

Spinoza

Ian Mitroff and Abraham Silvers’ book, Dirty Rotten Strategies: How We Trick Ourselves and Others into Solving the Wrong Problems Precisely, addresses the inability, prevalent among political, economic and cultural elites and the highly educated who serve them, to think critically and properly formulate problems. This incapacity results in Type 3 Errors, which

“is the unintentional error of solving the wrong problems precisely. In sharp contrast, the Type 4 Error is the intentional error of solving the wrong problems.” (Pg. 5)

Their book offers insight to those who share my conviction that our society is arrantly unsustainable yet unable/unwilling to recognize the natural ecological and fiscal/economic sources of our predicament. Those of us who think we are not a dead species walking will be enlightened and challenged by the thought exercises in epistemology (how we know what we know) and ethics (what we ought to do) found in this book.

The authors offer an integrated range of explanations for why political, corporate, military, medical, educational and cultural leaders end up honestly asking (Type 3 Error) or deceitfully devising (Type 4 Error) the wrong questions. Their framework is applicable to the economic contraction –and potential social collapse- now underway whose root or distal cause –in my view- is a decline in cheap net energy flows resulting from peak oil.

For me, Mitroff and Silvers’ prominent observation is that, “Problems always require us to stand above them to better formulate them” (Pg. 177). They write:

“One of the fundamental forms of Type Three and Type Four Errors occurs when … we elevate our preferred way of looking at the world [which no matter how “objective” and empirical remains a socially organized and sanctioned account] over all other ways of looking at it.”

These errors are endemic because –despite all remonstrance to the contrary- Americans are not consistently socialized, educated and rewarded to value thinking in terms of systems and complexity. As a child I would naively ask adults, “What about…?” questions, and on occasion –usually by a teacher- I was rewarded for my inquisitiveness; but my vivid memory is of being told to “stop being a pest.” Everyone who has worked in a group knows the tacit bounds of discourse beyond which discussion is verboten. Indeed, organizations pursuing innovation consciously attempt to eliminate or attenuate this tendency towards what goes by various names such as, groupthink, institutional thinking, herd mentality, conformism, and so on.

The authors conclude that in contemporary America, especially in politics, the facile solution –“kick the can down the road”- is the most likely option to be undertaken or propagated.

Tellingly, Mitroff has written about Type 3 Errors for many years. His and Silvers’ sobering reflections upon spending their respective careers in the corridors of government, corporations and academia has led them to develop the concept of Type 4 Errors. A bit dramatically, they observe:

“…modern capitalism has a number of the critical characteristics associated with sociopathology, for example, the commission of unethical acts intentionally designed to hoodwink the public; the glorification of unethical behavior, such as unrestrained greed; and little or no guilt associated with deceptive and unethical behavior.” (Pg. 18)

They title their chapter on the US healthcare system, “Organized Meanness” and point out,

“…solving the problem of how to provide the best medical care for those who can afford it is not the same as solving the problem of how to provide the best health care for all Americans who increasingly are unable to afford it and are denied access to it.” (Pg. 44)

The fundamental deceit, Type 4 Error, of the healthcare crisis, therefore,

“…can be boiled down to the following question: How can the AMA, the big HMOs, the insurance companies, and other powerful interests solve the problem of getting the public to accept the notion that maximizing profits at the public’s expense is the problem worth solving?” (Pg. 61-62)

This past year I’ve watched “health policy analysts” on PBS’s NewsHour, read articles in the New York Times, New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, and so forth. Not one has broached this formulation of the healthcare problem.

This leads us to the work of C. West Churchman, a mentor of Mitroff, who calls for a “meta-system of inquiry” to surface the relationship between epistemology and ethics. Churchman argues ethics are embedded within epistemology, but this is rarely acknowledged when system design and public policy are considered, especially in healthcare or, for that matter, climate change policy, where world population reduction and lowering consumption are taboo to consider as mitigation factors. Rare is the article in this past year’s mainstream “healthcare debate” that discusses in whose interests the medical system operates, and absent is contemplation of the environmental degradation and ecological constraints rapidly making the current health system –actually our entire society- ecologically unsustainable.

For Churchman, knowledge is not cumulative, self-correcting and value-free; “facts” discovered by science are organized/created (similar to Kuhn’s paradigm and Foucault’s episteme) within the ethical parameters of a system of scientific inquiry.

His four ostensibly enigmatic -actually rooted in American pragmatism- principles of systems theory inspire the epistemology/ethics of “Dirty Rotten Strategies:”

  1. A systems approach means seeing the world through the eyes of another –sociologically, “taking on the role of the other”
  2. Every worldview is partial –it suffers and gains from its location in time and context
  3. There are no systems experts, only students who should be ever eager to learn
  4. Systems thinking is a good and humbling idea

All those earnest health policy analysts laboring over the pros and cons of a Public Option have made an unacknowledged ethical decision about how to allocate resources –distribute medical care and, in fact, life chances. They intellectually/ethically are constrained from asking Mitroff and Silvers’ question.

Likewise, I believe that public policy makers are locked in a stance that perpetuates the illusion that the current healthcare system can be “reformed.” Most important for me, this epistemology treats as a separate issue from healthcare –not part of an inclusive macro-system- the fiscal/economic crisis and the Bottleneck of ecological consequences and constraints E.O. Wilson has observed will be the defining human dilemmas of the 21st century.

In conclusion, I want to use Type 3 and 4 Errors to explain why the wrong formulation of sustainability has come to pervade discussions about our society’s future. What is called “Sustainable Growth” or “Smart Growth,” typifies the nadir of systems thinking because these formulations “elevate our preferred way of looking at the world.” I suggest that the notion of “Supply-side Sustainability,” which necessitates creating human systems -especially medicine- aligned with the natural limits of the earth’s resources and the rhythms of its ecosystems, is the pinnacle –thus far- in systems thinking.

Editorial Notes: More information about the Mitroff and Silver book is here.

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