Thursday, October 21, 2004

Complex Decisions Made Simple

Yesterday we left off with Red Sox slugger/hero David Ortiz standing in to moderate at a critical moment. Briefly summarized, what do we do when our community faces an extremely complex decision in a compressed-time, yes-or-no format?

For a dramatic look at this question, see last week's issue of The New Yorker (The Politics Issue, October 18, 2004). Connie Bruck writes "On the Ballot," discussing the ambitiousness and absurdity of a ballot referendum that will essentially have California voters decide the future of embryonic stem cell research in America.

In a nutshell: the US Federal Government will not pay for embryonic stem cell research, but California is considering billing its taxpayers $3B to support it. Imagine what goes through the mind of Nobel laureates who are attempting to understand and explain the issues involved in this question, as they realize the gap between them and the simple majority of California voters who will actually decide the answer: yes or no.

Isn't the NIH better qualified to handle this question?

I had a similar feeling recently at a big semi-annual meeting. These meetings are usually boring rubber-stamp affairs, but this time a controversial but essential legal document was on the agenda. The survival of a critical program depended on the adoption of formal regulations, which an ad-hoc committee had spent nine months writing before submitting eight dense pages for the general community's approval.

To the ad-hoc committee's surprise, an activist faction came to the semi-annual meeting with a competing set of regulations. Instead of a rubber stamping, the meeting became an attack by this activist faction against the work of the ad-hoc committee. The ad-hoc committee tried to defend its work, but its flat-footed response left the audience pretty much on its own to sort through the credibility of the attack.

Eventually, two competing eight-page legal documents were waved around, and 200 of us had one hour to decide which one to approve.

How ridiculous!

As you might guess, the surprise attack won the day. Maybe their regulations are OK, but who can say? Experiences like this give me a new appreciation for what they say about those who love sausage and respect the law. Somewhere in this story too I sense a lesson in why Republicans are kicking the Democrats' asses (so to speak).

Soon I will tell another story with a similar plot line but a much happier ending...

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