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Who can we believe?

One trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure, and the intelligent are full of doubt.-- Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

As Year 2000 draws closer with alarming alacrity (have we really been talking about Y2K for a whole year already?) the time remaining for preparation, of any kind, is fading fast. Yet some people are still asking if this is all "real," most often by citing conflicting opinions and wondering who or what to believe.

Here are some ideas on that.

Countryside: I started reading this essay, and by the end I thought, "Jd could have written this!" Are you moonlighting as a philosophy graduate student? --Mike Benz

The essay, titled "Philosophy and Y2K: Is it rational to prepare for Y2K?" was posted at www.y2kreview. com/ed2.htm by Larry Sanger, who is completing his dissertation in epistemology. And it did in fact follow a line of reasoning we have used in Countryside, although more logically and entertainingly ... and with two important differences.

The gist of the essay is covered under "Decision theory applied to Y2K," with the explanation that decision theory is the area of philosophy that studies rational behavior. This divides decisions into three categories: decisions under certainty; decisions under risk, and decisions under uncertainty.

If you're certain that Y2K is all hype and nothin's gonna happen, you'll obviously decide to do nothing. And if you're certain that it means TEOTWAWKI, you'll head for the hills without hesitation.

Decisions under risk aren't that easy or simple. There are several possible outcomes, and while you can (maybe) assign probabilities to each one, you can't be certain of any of them. So you say maybe there's a 10 percent chance that nothing will happen, an 80 percent chance that something will happen but it won't be too bad or last too long, and a 10 percent chance of the end of the world.

This is where Sanger added teeth to something I was only groping for. He says that if you assign these probabilities (and he doesn't say he does, or that they're the most logical ones), then you see a 90 percent chance that something will happen to affect your lifestyle. With odds like that, making some kind of preparations is quite logical.

The problem is, assigning Y2K probabilities -- and their possible outcomes or effects on your life, which is what you actually have to prepare for -- is next to impossible, because of the tremendous amount of knowledge required, because nothing like this has ever happened before, and because of the way everything is tied to everything else like a huge spider web.

As many Countryside correspondents have noted, even a 1% chance of a major upheaval is a tremendous risk. It's far greater than the chance your house will burn down or that you'll have an auto accident, yet, you probably have insurance on those risks. Therefore, having "insurance" on Y2K is even more rational than home or auto insurance.

Decisions under uncertainty

However, the third area of decision theory -- decisions under uncertainty -- is where most of us are today. There is no reasonable way to assign probabilities to any possible outcomes. The fact is, we don't know what to think about any of this, and we're hopelessly confused!

Here Sanger engages Pascal's Wager. (Either you believe in God, or you don't; either He exists, or he doesn't. Consider the four resulting options.)

Applied to Y2K, this becomes, either Y2K will hit hard, or it won't. Either you prepare, or you don't.

If society collapses and you're prepared, great.

If it collapses and you're not prepared, not so good.

If society doesn't collapse and you're prepared, you might be a little embarrassed (but not too much, Sanger notes, because lots of respectable people are preparing) and you'll still have your stored food and generator, etc. for the next hurricane or other emergency, or a food pantry will gladly accept your stores.

If society doesn't collapse and you didn't prepare ... you won the gamble.

"So here's the point," Sanger concludes. "If you don't know what to think about the probabilities of disaster, then you may as well prepare. Doing so will do you no significant harm. and could do you considerable good. But if you fail to predate, you may regret it very much."

How to prepare, he adds, is a much more difficult question, "and one loaded with philosophical dilemmas" (which he promises to explore in a future posting). But this is where homesteaders have a distinct advantage.

If you are a homesteader, or have always wanted to be one -- or even just got the notion after reading the last few issues of Countryside -- the question isn't difficult at all. You're always ready to live without the infrastructure, because of your ideology!

The other big difference between this essay and mine is also related to the homestead advantage.

Sanger asks in what scenarios it would be rational to stock up on six months' worth of food. One, he suggests, is when food supplies are expected to be disrupted for six months.

But if there are food shortages, what else might be expected to happen? If many people are without food, he asks, will there be electricity, or phones, or commerce? His point: There is no situation worth considering in which the only thing you need to prepare for is a six-month food shortage.

"But that just raises an extremely troubling question: what are the different situations that are worth considering separately? In other words: what are the relevantly different situations in which we might find ourselves?

"I don't know the answer. If you do, you're doing a heck of a lot better than I am. But I suspect you don't know either, even if you think you do; because the issues here, in deciding what situations are even possible, are extremely complicated. No one is good at predicting the outcomes of such situations, especially when they've never happened before."

I would suggest that the answer is ... there are no situations worth considering separately. That's a basic tenet of homesteading: Everything is connected to everything else. And it's at the very core of the Y2K problem: The failure of just one computer chip could affect an entire power plant and shut it down; without electricity there is no water, no sewage treatment, no heat or refrigeration, no fuel pumps or traffic lights or traffic, no computers and no commerce, therefore no jobs, and no food. And, as we like to say, much, much more.

Then play it backwards. Say the computer is fixed in a couple of weeks and the power goes back on. But water and sewer lines and pumps and other elements are frozen, perhaps damaged beyond repair. The food, fuel and other pipelines are empty, and some could take a very long time to refill. Without water, fuel and food, and other necessities, power generation won't do much good even though the computer is fixed.

I'm not saying any of this will happen. I'm saying we have become so specialized, so dependent on one another's specialties, so dependent period, that when one card is removed from the house of cards the whole thing collapses.

That's the most important lesson in Y2K. For want of a nail a kingdom was lost, and for want of two little numbers in a computer ... who knows?

Y2K itself, whether it happens or not, hardly matters to a die-hard homesteader. What matters is that it demonstrates, graphically and potentially catastrophically, both the tenuous webs that connect everything to everything else, and the awesome importance of tiny things most people ignore or try to bulldoze out of the way ... from microscopic soil organisms that affect soil fertility that affect plants that affect human nutrition ... to the lack of two digits in computer code.

"This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper ..."

Who should we believe?

Here's another letter (e-mail) that adds some details to the above. It also displays a common dilemma, or at least one we're hearing very frequently.

"We consider ourselves well read, literate, and most of the time common sense users. We are just wondering about all the hullaballoo in the Y2K frenzy.

"If I talk to the fundamentalist right they will start screaming about Revelation and doomsday. OK, so much for their opinion.

"Then if I talk to the Earth muffin get-back-to-basics-movement people they start on me about the Earth and her people coming as one. OK ... again, so much for that movement.

"Then I look for intelligent speaking people who have real, credible information, and I cannot find them.

"We have the idea to be self-contained and prepared for anything and we are working on that but we hear all sorts of nasty stuff about Clinton signing in a martial law ordinance and all ... So where can we find out real information?

"None of the utilities have come forward to guarantee electricity. Heck, my hubby works for a telecommunications company and he won't guarantee that either.

"The numbers 2000 have different meanings for different folks I guess. I look at it as another day. Am I wrong to ask for intelligent answers? I don't like being left out in the dark. I want to know what is going to happen on January 1, or better yet all the doom and gloom people are now chanting September 9, 1999. Here we go again.

"Would someone please explain? -- Signed: We want real information not babble"

Real information, as in "On April 9 this will happen, on September 9 that will happen, and on January 1 the other thing will happen?"

No can do. There is no such thing as real information in advance.

This is not science ... at least the way science operates today.(*) In science you can say that if water is cooled to 32 [degrees] it will freeze, and if it's heated to 212 [degrees] it will boil. Those are demonstrable, and can be replicated. Most of all, they're based on past experiments.

Nothing like Y2K has ever happened before in recorded history. There are no precedents.

What's more, it's not as simple as boiling water. Although there are variables in that example -- atmospheric pressure and salinity for example -- those too are demonstrable and replicable, but also insignificant in comparison with Y2K variables.

No single person, no one field of expertise, has all the information, or even enough to make a believable statement.

Computer programmers and engineers can tell us what will happen in a specific computer running specific software if two date digits are missing. Many of them don't agree on Y2K, not because this isn't demonstrable and replicable, but because not one of them can be familiar with all of the billions of computers, chips, and trillions of lines of computer code. Or they assume that anything that's broken will be fixed in time ... and that the fix won't lead to other unknown and unsuspected glitches. Even if they know their own computer applications very well -- say, power generation -- they most likely know little or nothing about communications, transportation, finance, food production and distribution, medical applications, or the hundreds of other webs.

Why don't the utilities guarantee electricity after 1/1/00?

That good ol' division of labor, again.

Say the computer people are 100 percent certain that they've done their job to perfection. They're ready, and they so inform top management.

Other departments might not be quite as certain. Maybe they're tied in to other utilities that might not be ready, and could bring them down. Maybe other suppliers aren't Y2K compliant. Maybe they only have a one-week supply of certain essentials. Lots of maybes. There are no guarantees in anything, and the longer the chain, the more the likelihood of one link breaking.

So the legal department says, "We think we're ready, but if we guarantee that and something unforeseen or beyond our control happens, we're setting ourselves up for some real legal problems. Better to keep mum."

And that's how it goes, all up and down the line and across all fields.

General Motors is said to have 100,000 suppliers. Are they all really compliant? GM isn't likely to produce cars if they can't get tires or windshields, or even upholstery or door handles. For want of a nail a kingdom is lost.

They should deal only with certified Y2K compliant companies, you say? Even if that were possible, considering the foregoing, what happens to those who don't make the cut?

For many, GM is their biggest, maybe their only customer. When they lose GM, they're out of business. Their employees are out of work. Their stockholders are holding worthless paper. The businesses that sell to those employees sell less. Including GM. The house of cards collapses.

The trouble with guarantees

You want facts? I have a confession. Countryside isn't Y2K compliant.

Yes, I know, a few issues back I crowed about how we were, with our Mac computers and alternative energy system and all. You might even say I "guaranteed" it.

But we've been busy. So busy we had to add a couple of telephone lines. That required a new telephone system. It might not be Y2K compliant.

A different system will cost us several thousand dollars. Maybe we'll spend that. Maybe we'll wait and see what happens. Phones aren't absolutely essential to our business: we've operated without them before. Maybe we'll use our home phones. Maybe we won't want any frantic calls asking how to "prepare" for Y2K ... after it hits!

The point is, we thought we were ready. And we were. But even if somebody "guarantees" that, how can you be sure nothing is going to change?

There are no guarantees

I'm amused by all the "advisors" who suggest contacting your bank, utility, broker, insurance companies, etc., with a list of questions to guarantee that they're Y2K compliant. I wonder how many of those businesses are going to be able to handle all that paperwork without going under!

Useless paperwork. Guarantees, even if you can get them, are worthless. But of much more importance, what difference does it make? So your power stays on and your money is safe in the bank and your broker stays in business. What good will that do you if you can't get a part for your furnace in the middle of winter or a fan belt for the car or if you lose your job because GM cut off the company you work for?

People who worry about such things aren't looking for facts, or real answers. They're looking for excuses to continue their dependence. They're too lazy -- or stupid -- to figure it out for themselves.

Fundamentalists and Earth muffins

The fundamentalists and "Earth muffins" add another dimension to all this, and a very interesting one.

Many of them are looking at Y2K with a microscope, when a broader view is called for. This is a big picture. Stand back and look at all of it, or you're going to miss a lot. Zooming in for a close look at a hair can be interesting, even valuable, but is the hair from a mouse or a woolly mammoth?

Their out-of-the-mainstream views and alarmism also make it very easy for naysayers to scoff ... and for doubters to ignore the whole thing. For all I know, they're right. But the rational approach is to look at the big picture and apply the decision theory discussed above.

If you want to wing it on faith alone, you can have faith in the system, including the government and the economy and the computer experts, or you can have faith in whatever revelations appeal to you, or simply faith in your own gut instincts. For one who doesn't buy into any of these, the wide range of "faiths" is as confusing as the wide range of "facts."

A little knowledge is dangerous

Adding to the obfuscation are those who offer ample proof that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Correspondent Ray Stopka of Minnesota sent a fine example from his local newspaper. The writer makes two all-too-common errors. One is in thinking the problem can be solved if everyone with a pre-486 computer upgrades. No mention whatsoever of mainframes ... much less embedded chips. Anyone who hasn't done any more homework than that shouldn't be allowed to be heard in print. This isn't a question of free speech: it's a matter of promulgating stupidity!

The other error is in saying that because his son works for the post office, has checked hundreds of their (desktop) computers for Y2K problems, and nothing crashed, no computers anywhere are going to crash because of Y2K. This is patently absurd, yet you hear variations of it everywhere.

There's a word for leaping to unfounded and illogical conclusions. I don't recall what it is, but surely this is an example of it.

This also fits in with what we discussed earlier, about no one knowing enough about everything to know much of anything with any certainty.

We could be extremely generous and assume that this fellow is the brightest and most powerful computer expert in the USPS ... which seems highly doubtful, especially since he works only with desktops. But even if he is that top gun, how much does he know about power plants? Railroads? The IRS? Telecommunications? Medical equipment? Oil refineries? Banking? Nobody knows everything about even a portion of the critical role computers play in every aspect of life today.

And yet, thousands of people are going around saying, "Well, my son (or brother-in-law or whatever) is a computer expert, and he says ..." Worse, they read stuff like this in the newspaper ... and believe it.

(See page 19 for the latest from the USPS itself.)

The information gap: Not lack of data, but a lack of intelligent people!

This denotes two serious flaws in today's society: The inability to find information on one's own, and the inability to critically assess information.

This has long been a bone of contention at Countryside. For years, we have regularly been getting letters saying "Send me everything there is to know about chickens." (Many make this even better by adding, "Answer right away because I have 500 chicks coming next week" or "This is for my daughter's term paper which is due Friday." Not only could the kid not do the research on her own, which you'd think would be the point of the whole exercise: she couldn't even write the letter herself!)

As for critical thinking, we have lost count of how many people have asked if that hand pump we described in 83/1 will work in their well ... which is 700 feet deep. How much brain power should it take to figure out what 700 feet of 3/4" PVC weighs when it's full of water? Why worry about stocking up on aspirin when you don't even have food or water? How smart do you have to be, how critical a thinker, to realize that starvation and dehydration hurts a lot more than a headache?

Yes, there is too much information out there. Nobody can gather, assess, and assimilate all of it. That's why we have to rely on "experts" -- to fix our plumbing, repair our cars, figure our taxes ... and to tell us what to think and do about things like Y2K.

Plumbers, auto mechanics, tax preparers and computer engineers are all experts in their chosen fields, and in today's complex world we need their skills and training. (If all the water pipes in the world burst on the same day, there wouldn't be enough plumbers, or enough supplies, to fix all of them, and we'd have a mess. Date-compliant computer chips are much worse.) But important as they are in their own right, each of these fields is only a tiny portion of our lives.

The homesteader as an "expert"

Who are the "experts" who can put all this together, and make sense of it?

I would suggest that this is one role of the homesteader. Not because we know

everything. We obviously don't. Not because we're so independent we can do everything for ourselves. We obviously aren't.

Planting a garden and raising livestock are just two examples of being able to gather information (often conflicting), process it, and act on it -- independently, with no laws or regulations or policemen or even bosses or supervisors watching. If homesteaders can handle this, then they ought to be able to cope with the rest of life as well. Including Y2K.

We gather information, and evaluate it. What's the source, the source's qualifications, the source's interest or agenda?

We examine the pros and cons. Which side has the better proof, the most information, the better qualifications the more logical arguments?

We assess the risk. What happens to us if we believe, doubt, or disbelieve one side or the other? How serious are those risks? What do we have to lose, or gain? Does it involve a mild inconvenience, or is it a matter of life or death?

On the garden and livestock level of homesteading, none of these are extremely important ... as long as the stores are open and stocked and we have a little money. But when it comes to deciding whether or not to quit a job, sell the house, and move to the countryside, the process becomes much more critical.

And when it involves Y2K ... Well, you'll just have to go through the process for yourself.

Who -- or whom do you believe?

Some strict grammarians undoubtedly noticed our use of "who" throughout this section and sadly clucked at our lack of education or poor editing.

But had we used "whom" instead, other readers would have considered us unnecessarily and uncharacteristically pompous.

If I switched back and forth to make everyone happy, I would have pleased no one ... including the proofreaders who keep hammering on me about consistency.

Very often there IS no "right or wrong," and very often it doesn't make a whole lot of difference anyway, The individual aspects of Y2K might or might not happen, and alone, they might not make much difference. But if many thousands of computers have even a small chance of malfunctioning, the chances that some of them will malfunction is greatly increased. And although any of those malfunctions might be of little importance by themselves, we have to consider how some of them might interact to make them extremely important. No one can know any of this in advance.

If you want to be a homesteader, none of this makes much difference. You just do it -- and the nature of the lifestyle itself takes care of things, because you are living outside the complex system of crucial dependence on macroscopic divisions of expertise and labor. Maybe you won't be very far outside that complex system -- most of us are not, today -- but at least you'll have the attitude and some of the skills and tools required to go further if the need arises.

Then put everything into perspective. Life is a fatal disease. No one gets out alive. You wouldn't worry about Y2K if you knew that next Tuesday you were going to get hit by a truck. Who knows, Y2K could amount to nothing, but then the Earth's poles might shift and mess everything up anyway! (See page 109.)

And finally, don't put all your eggs in one basket. If your potato crop fails, be ready to eat beans. If the power is out and your generator fails, be prepared to live without electricity, And if you're really not interested in homesteading, for Pete's sake don't cash out of the city and hide in a mountain retreat on New Year's Eve ... unless you have gone through all the steps listed above and are convinced that's the rational and prudent thing to do.

(*) In The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty, K. C. Cole writes, "If you want to get to the truth about something, the first thing you do is size it up ... You need to start with data -- and data comes from making careful measurements."

Cole also points out that "measurements have meaning only to the extent that we respect their various limits. No measurements, when you get right down to it, are straightforward. All involve disentangling things that can't be separated, or quantifying things that can't be counted, or defining things you can't quite put your finger on.

Usually, the act of measuring something affects it; sometimes, measuring destroys it."

She is talking mostly about things like physics, which laymen consider absolute truths. How much easier it is to apply this to Y2K!

In physics, this fuzziness is known as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. According to Newton, a falling drop of water is governed by certain basic laws of nature. But predicting where a particular drop of water will be after it crashes over Niagara Falls is beyond our capabilities. It simply requires too much information.

Y2K is very much like that drop of water.

In the same book, in a discussion of discoveries in astronomy, Cole says, "(This is) how the search for truth is supposed to work. You see something and then you try everything you can think of to make it go away; you turn it upside down and inside out and push on it from every possible angle; If it's still there, maybe you've got something."

The Y2K analogy here is that, to me at least, some of the "alarmists" (not all) have been applying this scientific method, and "they've got something." If the naysayers are doing anything similar, I haven't found it.
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Article Details
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Author:Belanger, Jd
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:May 1, 1999
Previous Article:Dr. Edward Yardeni speaks out on Y2K, Feb. 15, 1999.
Next Article:"An attack against honesty".

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