It is amazing how good people are at problem solving. Think of all the inventions and methods people have come up with to fix everything from minor annoyances to large scale worldwide problems. Even as good as everyone seems to be at solving problems, we are notoriously bad at identifying the correct problem to solve. Let me give a few examples.
Our public aviation security in the US is based around the idea of keeping bad stuff off airplanes. The idea is that if we can keep anything dangerous off planes, we will be safe. Lots of problem solving effort has gone into keeping dangerous stuff off planes, but is that the real problem? There is stuff all over in a plane that could potentially be dangerous. I’m not going to try to give people any ideas here, but trust me there are many MANY items already on a plane that are far more dangerous than the pieces of plastic the 9/11 hijackers used. So what is the real problem? We need to keep terrorists off planes. It is going to be impossible to keep all the bad stuff off planes–particularly when some of the things that could be dangerous are part of the planes safety mechanisms. But if we can keep terrorists off planes then it doesn’t really matter what is on the plane.
Keeping specific types of people out of the air isn’t as easy as making knee jerk reactions to ban random stuff but it isn’t impossible and it is much safer. Israel seems to do a pretty good job of this–they don’t let you on the plane until they are convinced that you aren’t a terrorist. They still check baggage and stuff like that, but they are trying to solve a different problem than we are trying to solve in the US. They want to keep terrorists of planes. The US wants to keep tools a terrorist could use off planes. How you identify the problem determines to a great extent what type of solution you will achieve.
When it comes to countries where people don’t have enough to eat, governments and charitable organizations often go in and do problem solving on the issue of”People don’t have enough food.” Of course the solution to that problem is simple–send food. In many instances it doesn’t help very much because the food is thrown away because of local superstitions or stolen or left to rot because of inadequate distribution and red tape. Worse still, giving away food often causes bigger problems.
Most people understand that giving food to wild animals can do a lot of harm. If an eagle gets accustomed to being given fish by a human, he may lose the desire and skill of hunting for himself. This can happen to people as well.
What incentive does a farmer in Africa have to work hard to raise a crop, when he knows his inferior foods will be in competition with what some foreign charity is giving away for free near the market? Giving away free food can kill any self sufficiency that may exist. The free food might temporarily keep people from being hungry, but when war or politics drive out the people who are giving aid, the people are left in a worse position than they were before because they are less self-sufficient on local resources.
When it comes to helping people who are starving in foreign countries, the problem must be defined as “how do we help them become self-sufficient?” I’m not saying that you should never give away food, but it has to be done very carefully in much the same way that doctors may prescribe addictive drugs as pain killers for extremely sick patients.
I talked with someone from the United Nations who explained that his job was to go in and try to find way to help people without causing more harm. He said that many times, giving people the ability to own property by establishing banks and loan programs could reverse poverty in an area and create a self-sufficient ecosystem while having the fewest negative side effects.
Autos and the Environment
When it comes to pollution from cars, the obvious problem is: How can we make cars that produce less pollution in manufacturing and produce less pollution while driving? Hybrid vehicles are not the solution to this problem. Hybrid vehicles solve the following problem: “How can we make a car that people will pay more for because they think they are helping the environment and/or saving on fuel?” The car I drove in high-school and college required less pollution to make and got significantly better gas mileage than the current hybrid cars. Hybrids solve a marketing problem more than they solve the pollution problem. The pollution problem will be better solved with vehicles that are simple to make and inexpensive to propel. A car with both an electric and a gasoline drive system is going to require many many more components and much more mining of copper and nickle than a simple efficient gasoline vehicle. If a hybrid vehicle costs more than an equivalent non-hybrid vehicle it is probably because there is more involved in its manufacture and it contains parts that aren’t required in the plain version. The additional manufacturing and additional parts are all going to add pollution.
The smart choice for a strictly environmental perspective is going to be getting a used vehicle that can get 50 MPH. That’s better mileage than you’ll get with a hybrid AND you skip all the pollution of making a new vehicle.
Kids and self-esteem
Somewhere someone has decided that kids have problems with self-esteem. According to research that I’ve seen, this isn’t as much of an issue in the US. Kids in the US think they are very good a math and science. A study confirmed that most US kids feel they are better than other people at math and science. The problem is that they aren’t. They have the self-esteem, but not the skills.
Anyway, the people are trying to solve the “self esteem problem” have decided that they need to lower the passing scores on tests to 40% so kids can all feel good about passing and don’t have to experience failure. It seems to me that school would be a good place to learn from your mistakes so you don’t have to encounter that type of education on the job for the first time, but I guess that is the view of someone with real world experience and not as many hours of child psychology classes.
So back to what they are trying to solve. Is it really a problem that kids don’t have good self esteem? Maybe. Maybe not. But I can guarantee you this: Poor self esteem isn’t caused by tests being too hard. If you want to give kids self esteem, give them things to do that if they work hard they can succeed at. The problem is not that public school education is too rigorous, yet that is the problem they are trying to solve.
Welfare used to try to solve the problem of “How can we give these people jobs?” WPA projects started around the time of the Great Depression built a nearby lake, the highschool football stadium, and the cement picnic tables at a local park. In a nearby town, they hired people to go down the brick streets and flip each brick over. It looked a bit nicer, but it wasn’t really something that had to be done. The point was it gave people work for which they were paid. They could take their paycheck and buy food for their family.
Much of the welfare we see today tries to solve a different problem. “How can we give these people money?” This is a completely different problem that is solved in a completely different way. Trying to give people jobs helped foster a sense of self reliance. When other higher paying jobs became available it was easy for these people to transition to other work. Trying to just give people money creates as many problems as it solves.
I can see the need for unemployment, but I think it is horrible that you can sit at home and get an unemployment check. At the very least you should be required to spend 10 to 20 hours a week doing some type of public service work in exchange for the money you are getting. I think you’d see a significant drop in the number of people claiming unemployment if it still required some type of work. Work is a great way to weed out people who are simply taking advantage of the system and keep the benefits focused on people who it is actually helping as they try to find another job.
My point was to show that we often try to solve the wrong problems and put a tremendous amount of effort in to fixing the wrong things. If your car doesn’t drive well because the wheels need aligned, you can change the oil all you want with out fixing the real issue. When you are trying to solve problems, make sure you don’t jump so quickly to the solution stage, that you skip the part where you identify the actual problem that needs solved.
Kirstine Vergara says
Let me share with you an article I just read about how women in Asian countries suffer from hardship and humiliation because of a law banning abortion. The women who got pregnant but do not want to keep their babies resorted to unsafe abortion causing medical problems and sometimes death. Now, there’s this group who’s blaming the government for having such conventional laws. The solution that they want is for the government to legalize abortion, when in my opinion, the solution should be education. Women should be educated about safe sex, so no one has to undergo abortion. As simple as that. Like you said, we have means to solve a problem; we just don’t know what the real problem is.
Discover how to turn the negative into positive here
I wee what you did right there! You acted like you were going to make a meaningful contribution to the subject and then you hijacked the readers. Like this, just in a more nefarious manner.
Shame on you!
That’s not true Marc, Kirstine is kinda right. Whether or not you support the ability for women to have abortions, they are still a dangerous and traumatic event and shouldn’t be used as birth control. Education and creation of an environment that allows them to use better methods of contraception would be a more effective solution. That’s not to say legalizing abortions isn’t a good idea, it’s just a bottom of the hill solution.
Mark Shead says
I don’t really understand what Marc was trying to say other than Rick Rolling everyone.
The problem with cars and the environment is not due to the cars, but with people travelling. Cars, trains, buses, taxis, planes, boats, motorbikes. All consume fuel = environmental impact.
But lets confine it to personal transport. We travel by car because we can. We travel longer distances because we can. So, the solution might be to take away the cars, motorbikes and taxis. Only have public transport. It takes longer, so we would live closer to work = further environmental impact reduction. Services would then have to decentralise (more jobs?) so a car is no longer necessary anyway. Walking would reduce the obesity plague too.
(The other alternative is to reduce the number of people. Let’s not go there.)
Now, about world peace …
Mark Shead says
I actually consider the problem of why we have to travel so far a different issue from car pollution–one which we are both solving and making worse at the same time. Technology is reducing the amount we need to travel–people can telecommute, do video meetings, etc. However at the same time this technology improvement means that we stay more connected with people over greater geographical distances which increases the frequency travel occurs to get “face time” with people.
Another interesting fact. If we are really concerned about pollution, painting all of our roofs white would do more to decrease the amount of CO2 we produce than switching every car to electric. :)
Gustavo Bonato says
To solve the issue of cars, the most important thing is to create good public transport system. If it’s good enough it will be easier for people not to buy a car.
Both Mark and Stephen have valid points. I know that I travel a lot more than is necessary because it’s possible. If it wasn’t as easy to travel, then I wouldn’t do so. A good solution would be to take parts of both of those methods to create a system where it is more convenient to travel using either public transportation, biking or walking, or to use technology to communicate rather than meeting in person. On a day-to-day basis, most people will do what is most convenient, so making low-tech or low-carbon-emitting forms of travel the most convenient is a good idea. At the same time, leaving the current methods of travel (car, plane, etc) for the necessary travel allows the same flexibility and mobility that is currently available. And then optimize those forms of transportation so that they have as little as effect on the environment as possible.
“The car I drove in high-school and college required less pollution to make and got significantly better gas mileage than the current hybrid cars.” The internet, a place where anyone can make statements of fact without backing it up in anyway. Your 1970 honda that go 27 mpg was produced in a factory that produced much more pollution than the factory that built a 2010 fullsize pickup. And, the emission controls on that 15-19 mpg pickup have reduced its pollution levels to much lower than your honda. Fact. http://www.epa.gov/OMS/invntory/overview/solutions/milestones.htm
And, we need to change our fuel source. Who cares what we’re putting in our tank, as long as it makes the car go, and everyone can breathe.
Mark Shead says
If 27 mph is better than current hybrids, they are even worse than I thought. My first car got 40 to 55 MPG and it was made in the 90s. I think you are underestimating the amount of pollution that is generated in making the electronics and batteries in hybrid vehicles.
Still you bring up a good point and it is possible that the way cars were made in the 90s was horribly polluting. So maybe I should say that making the same vehicle today would produce less pollution and get better gas mileage–although I’m pretty confident my original statement is correct as well.
You know you can really apply this idea of solving the wrong problems to a lot of people in general. we all tend to devote so much of our time trying to solve problems that really dont matter as much. It like the 80/20 rule says. 20 percent of the work we do makes 80 percent of the total impact and yet we commit ourselves to working on problems that really dont make much of an impact.
Just how much more efficient and productive would we be if we could only commit ourselves to identifying and solving the right problems?