Sunday, August 31, 2003

Prevention non-paradox

The LA Times says: "Paradoxically, it seems that the more we spend on cancer research, the more cancer we get."

Paradoxically? Hardly. It makes perfect sense, for two reasons: first, there is a negative incentive for cancer researchers to find ways to prevent cancer. If they were to ever succeed in preventing cancer their careers would all be over. Second, Americans love heros. The people who get the big accolades are not the ones who keep things running smoothly, but rather the ones who pull a situation back from the very brink of disaster. Curing cancer is much sexier than preventing it.

You can see this mentality at work in many aspects of American life. Take the space program. The most celebrated moment of NASA's history, its "finest hour", was not any of its many successes, but it closest brush with failure, Apollo 13. The most celebrated moment of the Iraq war was the rescue of Jessica Lynch. If Apollo 13 hadn't had an oxygen tank explode, or if Jessica Lynch's convoy hadn't taken a wrong turn, no one would remember them today.

So to me it's no surprise at all that cancer rates are going up, or that blackouts are happening, or that computer viruses are spreading, or that space shuttles are exploding. There's just no percentage in preventing these things from happening. Americans barely notice quiet competence, let alone reward it. It's too boring. Americans love heros, and they love drama. There's nothing heroic or dramatic about telling someone that they should stop smoking and excercise more.

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