Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Message to Yourself

If you could call yourself five years ago and had 30 seconds, what would you say?

Think about it. Consider several options. Think about your priorities. When you have made a decision, read on.

Most people seem to answer this question with advice for their personal life. This was one of my first instincts as well. This says a lot about the way that human instincts work. Our minds seem programmed to focus on petty personal things.

A slightly higher order of thought is to give yourself advice on buying stocks. This is much more useful than personal advice if your goal is to maximize your personal quality of life, but it is still a rather petty and selfish thing to do.

After a bit of thought, I started to consider what kind of tragedies I could have prevented if I had accurate information from the future. A lot of bad things have happened in the last five years. Crafting the ideal message then becomes a problem of identifying bad things that I could prevent if I had foreknowledge of them, guessing the probabality of preventing them, and multiplying to find the highest expected benefit for the world.

Probably the worst disaster of the past five years is the Syrian civil war. But I cannot think of any way that I could have prevented that catastrophe. Even if I was the actual president of the US, it is not clear that I could have stopped it. It is a messy diplomatic and geopolitical situation, and an unverifiable 'message form the future' will add nothing to efforts to prevent the disaster, even if that information turns out to be accurate.

The same is true for any number of natural disasters, famines, and diseases. I do not think that a random Economics PhD student could have any real chance of preventing such things, even with 30 seconds of accurate information. Presumably I would trust the message, but attempting to tell anyone else about the source of my knowledge would mark me as a madman.

However, there are much smaller tragedies that I might have had a good chance of preventing with a phone call to the right people at the right time. Despite the fact that the FBI gets millions of signals a day, and has an incredibly difficult job of choosing which ones to act on, a very clear warning about a specific person on a specific date would probably get a serious response. If I called in about a week before the Boston marathon bombings and gave the name of the perpetrator and said I knew he was planning an attack, they would probably start investigating.

Outbreaks of foodborne illness kill far more Americans each year than criminals and terrorists. If I was in a position of authority, then knowledge of things like the 2011 listeriosis outbreak from contaminated cantaloupe, or the 2012 meningitis outbreak from compounding pharmacy drugs, would allow me to save far more lives than knowledge of criminal acts that kill a half or a third as many people. But I do not think that a message from a random civilian would be able to start an investigation that would prevent these things.

So, my message to myself would be a brief description of the worst domestic crimes and attacks in the past five years, with dates and perpetrators. I have not researched this very thoroughly, but my first guess would be the Fort Hood shootings, the Sandy Hook shootings, and the Boston marathon bombings. Those are bad events that I could have a high probability of stopping if I had accurate information in advance of the attacks, and that information is probably the limit of what I could fit into 30 seconds.


E said...

What about building collapses? The BP spill?

I would very likely have said "check on your sister on Wednesday November 15 and tell everyone to do the same" but that was more than 5 years ago so I suppose it doesn't count.

Alleged Wisdom said...

The oil spill did not actually kill anyone, so I rank it as a minor nuisance. Building collapses are another one of those things where a warning from an outsider would not really do any good. In the Bangladesh collapse, there was already a warning from an engineer on site, and it was ignored. I don't see how I could change the outcome there.