Edge: WHY DO SOME SOCIETIES MAKE DISASTROUS DECISIONS?


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[4.28.03]

WHY DO SOME SOCIETIES MAKE DISASTROUS DECISIONS?: JARED DIAMOND

What I'm going to suggest is a road map of factors in failures of group decision making. I'll divide the answers into a sequence of four somewhat fuzzily delineated categories. First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives. Secondly, when the problem arrives, the group may fail to perceive the problem. Then, after they perceive the problem, they may fail even to try to solve the problem. Finally, they may try to solve it but may fail in their attempts to do so. While all this talking about reasons for failure and collapses of society may seem pessimistic, the flip side is optimistic: namely, successful decision-making. Perhaps if we understand the reasons why groups make bad decisions, we can use that knowledge as a check list to help groups make good decisions.

Honoring The Scientist As Poet
Lewis Thomas Prize Lecture
The Rockefeller Institute, New York City
Thursday March 27, 2003

video

Introduction

At the end of March, Jared Diamond was in New York to receive THE LEWIS THOMAS PRIZE Honoring the Scientist as Poet. The prize was presented to Jared by Thomas P. Sakmar, Acting President, The Rockefeller University.

"Throughout history," states the LEWIS THOMAS PRIZE literature, "scientists and poets have sought to unveil the secrets of the natural world. Their methods vary: scientists use tools of rational analysis to slake their compelling thirst for knowledge; poets delve below the surface of language, and deliver urgent communiqués from its depths. The Lewis Thomas Prize honors the rare individual who is fluent in the dialects of both realms — and who succeeds in spinning lush literary and philosophical tapestries from the silken threads of scientific and natural phenomena — providing not merely new information but cause for reflection, even revelation."

"The Lewis Thomas Prize was established in 1993 by the trustees of The Rockefeller University and presented to Lewis Thomas, its first recipient, that year. Other recipients have been François Jacob (1994), Abraham Pais (1995), Freeman Dyson (1996), Max Perutz (1997), Ernst Mayr (1998), Steven Weinberg (1999), Edward O. Wilson (2000), and Oliver Sacks (2001)."

~~~

Jared is an early and frequent contributor to Edge. In his first feature in 1997 ("Why Did Human History Unfold Differently On Different Continents For The Last 13,000 Years?") he stated:

"I've set myself the modest task of trying to explain the broad pattern of human history, on all the continents, for the last 13,000 years. Why did history take such different evolutionary courses for peoples of different continents? This problem has fascinated me for a long time, but it's now ripe for a new synthesis because of recent advances in many fields seemingly remote from history, including molecular biology, plant and animal genetics and biogeography, archaeology, and linguistics."

Underlying his task is the question of how to turn the study of history into a science. He notes the distinction between the "hard sciences" such as physics, biology, and astronomy — and what we sometimes call the "social sciences," which includes history, economics, government. The social sciences are often thought of as a pejorative. In particular many of the so-called hard scientists such as physicists or biologists, don't consider history to be a science. The situation is even more extreme because, he points out, even historians themselves don't consider history to be a science. Historians don't get training in the scientific methods; they don't get training in statistics; they don't get training in the experimental method or problems of doing experiments on historical subjects; and they'll often say that history is not a science, history is closer to an art.

He comes to this question as one who is accomplished in two scientific areas: physiology and evolutionary biology. The first is a laboratory science; the second, is never far from history. "Biology is the science," he says. "Evolution is the concept that makes biology unique." He continues to bring together history and biology in new and interesting ways to present global accounts of the rise and fall of civilizations.

More than one million copies of the U.S. edition of Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel:The Fates of Human Societies have now been sold. Jared hopes to deliver his much-anticipated new book, Ecocide, at the end of this year for publication in 2004.

Following the Prize Presentation, Jared delivered the Lewis Thomas Prize Lecture "Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?" The next morning, he stopped by to videotape a reprise of the opening of his talk which Edge is pleased to present as a streaming video along with the text of his lecture.

JB

JARED DIAMOND is Professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. Until recently he was Professor of Physiology at the UCLA School of Medicine. He is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the widely acclaimed Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies, which also is the winner of Britain's 1998 Rhone-Poulenc Science Book Prize.

He is also the author of two other trade books: The Third Chimpanzee, which won The Los Angeles Times Book award for the best science book of 1992 and Britain's 1992 Rhone-Poulenc Science Book Prize; and Why is Sex Fun? (ScienceMasters Series).

Dr. Diamond is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship ("Genius Award"); research prizes of the American Physiological Society, National Geographic Society, and Zoological Society of San Diego; and many teaching awards and endowed public lectureships. In addition, he has been elected a member of all three of the leading national scientific/academic honorary societies (National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Society).

His field experience includes 17 expeditions to New Guinea and neighboring islands, to study ecology and evolution of birds; rediscovery of New Guinea's long-lost goldenfronted bowerbird; other field projects in North America, South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia. As a conservationist he devised a comprehensive plan, almost all of which was subsequently implemented, for Indonesian New Guinea's national park system; numerous field projects for the Indonesian government and World Wildlife Fund; founding member of the board of the Society of Conservation Biology; member of the Board of Directors of World Wildlife Fund/USA.

Jared Diamond 's Edge Bio Page



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