Monday, April 01, 2013

Naive Interventionism and the Thinking Horseman

Iatrogenics [eye-at-tro-GEN-iks].  Now there's a word for your Words With Friends game.  It refers to illness (or poor outcomes) created by overzealous medical intervention.  In other words, it's the unintended consequences that result from our desire to manipulate our environment.  I've said it before, and here is comes again:  Just because you can doesn't mean that you should.

Makes you want to knit him an afghan, doesn't it?
But this little guy is far better equipped to handle the cold than  you are,
and he'd probably eat the afghan and die from your efforts.

We humans can't resist fixing things we believe are broken or wrong or just not the way we like them.  When we evolved opposable thumbs, it must have cost us a few of the rationality cells that allowed our brains to see some of the vast array of random events that are laid out around us like a Hubble photo of heavenly bodies.  One would think we'd be able to finger just a few of them, but we seem bereft of foresight in so many arenas.  Just watch society at work for an hour, and you'll find yourself shaking your head in disbelief.

As I type, there are discussions raging all over the Interwebs about what the world should be doing about the North Korean despot, Kim Jong Un's, latest declaration of war against South Korea and the rest of humanity. The desire to intervene and preclude action on the threat is strong in some regions.  That most of the powers involved have no idea what the long-term result of intervention might be doesn't stop pundits from postulating, posturing, and positing their individual brands of problem-solving.  And just last week we heard at great length about a mother suing a pharmaceutical company because she'd administered a common over-the-counter fever reducer to her child, and the child had suffered a bizarre and severe adverse reaction.  The anti-pharma folks screamed foul at a product that endangers users.  The medical profession screamed back that if Mom had just let the child have the fever for a bit, she would probably have recovered without intervention, and warnings to that effect went out around the world.  When the medical community warns against intervention, you know it's got to be serious.

Naive doesn't mean "innocent", it means "without experience".  So "naive interventionism" means attempting corrections when it's not actually proven that there's anything in need of correcting.  Insufficient data, as my psych profs used to tell us, proves only that we're lazy experimenters.

The result of attempting to "correct" a horse's hoof appearance
can result in screwing up fine points like breakover,
resulting in a jumper suddenly unable to get over a rail without clipping it..

Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in Antifragile that the inability to predict the future isn't, in itself, our downfall. It's our desire to do so combined with our inability to understand that we need to be less distracted by the endless input from our environment that sends us spinning off in a thousand directions at once (and probably accounts for most of the cases of depression and anxiety that are increasingly common in our population).  It's the fact that we consistently try to predict what can't, with any certainty, be predicted and to fix what shouldn't be fixed that causes so much grief species-wide.

We Thinking Horsemen are among the masses who tend to jump the gun and try to "fix" things that probably would be better off left alone.  We watch our horses like surveillance squads, noting every misstep and every uneven breath, and we're on it before Judy can belt Punch with her rolling pin.   Taleb points out that we would gain more accurate information if we assess changes over a period of, say, a year than if we do a continuous daily assessment.  The odds are better that we will see more "signal" and less "noise"  , hence have less likelihood of correcting something that doesn't need to be corrected and creating an unexpected problem as a result.

A random event can throw off data.  Let's say you are worried that Fuzzbutt is never going to learn to piaffe despite his physical prowess and mental ability to master the movement.  You ride him for two hours in one day, and during the tenth repetition of the cues, he perks his ears, calls loudly to a pasture buddy, and spins around.  What probably happened was a movement beyond your field of vision or a sound out of your hearing range that startled him.  A random event.  As a one-in-ten, it's pretty meaningful.  You only got 9 good trials before you got one chaotic whirl-around.  Project forward from that flimsy sample, and you might expect that in the next year--perhaps 200 riding sessions and 10 rounds of cues per session for a total of 2000 events--you will get 1800 good responses and 200 incorrect responses.  Seems logical, right.

But if you waited before making your assessment until you had more events under your belt, you might actually find that the ratio was more like 1 spin out of every 400 trials or even less.  It could have been a one-time event, and it's on that shoddy sample that you'll base your training regimen.  You'll start over with ground work, sacking out, retraining to the leg and seat cues....and possibly wind up with a bored, pissed-off animal who (as we well know) will find myriad ways to get even with you for insulting his intelligence to such a degree.  I can certainly attest to how creatively our animals respond to nonsensical treatment.

So today's lesson rides on not being naive.  Make sure you have enough evidence obtained over a long enough period of time to be of some value before jumping in and fixing something that you'll likely have to un-fix a month down the road.  Patience is never misplaced unless you're faced with an outright threat to life or limb, in which case running and hiding are always good.

No comments: