What Isn’t There

All species with some form of cognition, especially humans, have a cognitive bias that we almost never consider. We focus almost exclusively on what exists, if you will, what we see, hear, feel, and believe we know exists, not on what doesn’t. This sounds supremely rational at first glance, but it’s not, because we ignore the impacts and the costs of what is not present, but might otherwise be.

What brought this to my attention was a demonstration of canine skills by the local police organizations’ canine [K-9] units. One of the points that emerged was that while trained police canines are not cheap, they save lives and money, at least in our region. Just over the last ten years, there have been more than a score of documented cases where armed suspects who were involved in narcotics, armed robberies, and other stand-off situations would not surrender to police officers, but who immediately or quickly surrendered when they were faced with police canines. This not only likely saved the lives of officers, but also saved the lives of the suspects. Even those suspects brought down by canines came out better off, suffering at the most the need for a few stitches, rather than being shot and likely severely wounded or killed. The medical costs alone that were avoided in these cases likely far exceeded the costs of acquiring the dogs and training these K-9 units, not to mention the costs of deaths and burdens on families that were also avoided, but I’ve never seen even an estimated quantification of costs that were avoided.

A study whose results were just published in New Scientist attempts to quantify in general terms how U.S. elections would be different if the death rates and imprisonment rates of African American males were the same as those of Caucasian males, and according to the analysis the effects of the absence of those dead and imprisoned blacks, as well as those who died prematurely because of health factors, would have been significant. You might say it’s another unquantified effect of how black lives matter.

I mentioned in an earlier blog how American aerospace R&D is decreasing. What’s not decreasing are the R&D efforts of major players outside the U.S. What’s not there – more basic research and development – will definitely have an impact in years to come, but I doubt many will trace it back to what wasn’t spent on R&D over the past few years.

Today, everyone in politics and business talks about cost-effectiveness, about how to do more with less, but I don’t see anywhere close to the same enthusiasm about asking what investments that we are not making could reduce costs. And sometimes, I suspect, what isn’t there just might be more important than what is.

5 thoughts on “What Isn’t There”

  1. Sam says:

    This is a bit of a tangent to the theme of your blog but I have to say I’m glad I live in a country where voting is mandatory.

    To my mind voting is not only a privilege but a responsibility.

    In addition the fact that everyone is obligated to vote means that politicians must appeal to a broader section of the community rather than just their political base in order to win an election.

    The penalty for not voting is relatively minor – a $20 fine. Also the “donkey vote” – an incorrectly filled out ballot is a legitimate option if one feels there are no viable contenders to vote for. So ultimately the penalty is for not showing up rather than not voting.

    The nature of our system means that not voting is still an option only it takes just about as much effort as voting does.

    I bring up the topic of my country’s voting system because you mentioned prisoners in the US not being allowed to vote. I remember the first time I heard about this I didn’t like it since I believe there are many things a person can be imprisoned for that shouldn’t be a crime or even when they should be a crime are not serious enough offences to abrogate someone’s right to vote.

    I was under the mistaken impression that prisoners in my country retained their voting rights. I’ve just done some research and it turns out that is not entirely true.

    Until 2004 any prisoner with a sentence of 1 year or more could not vote. I believe that has changed to 5 years now which is an improvement. However I think all prisoners should have the right to vote even murderers, terrorists and pedophiles.

    Delineating who does and does not have a right to vote in my view ultimately leads to political gerrymandering.

  2. Grey says:

    One of the largest things in this category is climate change. First, the gullible deny it – it still snows in winter so how can it be real? (As you say “We focus almost exclusively on what exists, if you will, what we see, hear, feel, and believe we know exists, not on what doesn’t.”)

    No one but a few look at the costs of taking action now (e.g., reducing fossil fuel use) versus later (e.g., relocating Miami, which can’t be saved even with a sea wall, because it’s on porous bedrock).

  3. Tim says:

    @Sam: I agree that the UK for example should follow the example of Australia in ensuring mandatory voting.

    However, I disagree in the areas of prisoner’s rights. If an individual has been jailed for a period then that is the period where he/she has been found to be acting against the values of society. As such they should not be permitted to vote for that period, as they have been essentially put out of society.

    The EU Court of Human Rights has been vocal in this area, which is one small reason why the UK needs to leave the EU.

  4. Lourain says:

    A good example of your point is money spent on preventative health care. It has been shown to save many times its cost, but trying to convince legislators that insurance should pay for it has been an uphill battle.

  5. Wine Guy says:

    It is hard to get defense companies to spend actual money on R&D because they are so beholden to the bottom line and their stockholders. In addition, local politics (i.e. Representatives and Senators wanting to stay elected) fiddle with who can do what where and with how much money. DARPA attempts to fill this void, but it is a government agency, with all of the foibles so entailed and is too little: a clot of dirt tossed in to create a dam in front of onrushing water.

    “Men and nations behave wisely when they have exhausted all other resources.” – Abba Eban, Israeli diplomat.

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