Rifling through policy options

Rifling through policy options
Debate is raging again over whether the government should have relaxed the lockdown for Ramzan and then Eid. Like the previous rounds, this one is no different with everyone pushing the view (s)he is predisposed to. As I have written in this space before, this is line with the biases we have, the fast thinking mode.

But there’s another problem too, equally interesting and, some would say, disconcerting: the scientific analysis — I include maths in that, of course. I wrote about it with reference to a 1973 paper by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber for Policy Sciences titled “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning”. The paper critiqued the scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy.

How do we define the problem? In other words, it may not be easy. How do we situate the problem in complex causal networks? In other words, how do we use a benign or tame methodology to deal with a wicked problem? (All terms are derived from the Rittel-Webber paper.)

Put another way, how do we bring the findings and neatness of science in conformity with a social, and this case also economic, context? Let me give an example from Clausewitz, the Prussian soldier-theorist of war. Mechanics is pretty clear about what will happen when you apply force to an object if you have worked out factors like the mass and weight of the object, the amount of force needed to move it from Point A to B, the gravity and friction. Clausewitz knew these concepts and talked about drag and friction. But he also knew, being a soldier, that application of force on an animate object is different from applying force to an inanimate object.
The figures with our government suggest the virus will peak in Pakistan by mid-June and then decline before rising again in October. The top figure for mortality in this wave is around 5000 across Pakistan

It’s simple: the animate object, or in the case of Clausewitz a body of troops, does not simply follow the laws of mechanics. A body of troops can react in many different ways some of which, despite contingency planning, would remain not just unforeseen but also surprisingly novel.

Policy-making, therefore, is a function of socioeconomic context. Put another way, let’s suppose that a government gets Expert X to come up with a Covid-19 policy; let’s also suppose that our expert is a first-rate mathematician and epidemiologist. He sits sombrely in his study, poring over data and formulating a response through his calculations, curves and graphs, what we can call scientific rationality at its best. He gives us a model. Until the application of his model on people, his environment is neat and pure and controlled. Then the model faces the complexity and noise of the real world and it begins to unravel. Why? Because the real world has people in it and those people can have a bewildering array of responses, not always rational.

So, unless the model can factor in people and also, hopefully, a number of likely responses, it can’t be much use to the policymaker. The problem is, when the model does bring in factors other than scientific rationality, it loses its neatness and its rational certitude.

There’s yet another problem. Maths is being used to argue for lockdowns and it is being used to argue for keeping things normal and open. What does one say to that? Nils Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, says Sweden is playing the long game. In an interview to Financial Times, Tegnell said: “In the autumn, there will be a second wave. Sweden will have a high level of immunity and the number of cases will probably be quite low. But Finland will have a very low level of immunity. Will Finland have to go into a complete lockdown again?”

There are others like Michael Levitt. Levitt, a Stanford biophysicist who got the 2013 Nobel Prize for developing complex models of chemical systems, says the virus is peaking and slowing down. Levitt had earlier predicted with remarkable accuracy the total number of cases in China and resultant deaths.

The figures with our government suggest the virus will peak in Pakistan by mid-June and then decline before rising again in October. The top figure for mortality in this wave is around 5000 across Pakistan. The detractors do not believe that figure and many continue to predict doom. Either way, this point of contention should be resolved by mid-June.

Meanwhile, there’s more information on the workings of the virus now, though ironically that information pertains to the multiple axes of attack of the pathogen, not why it does so. In other words we know that it can kill in more ways than just a virulent attack on the respiratory system, but we don’t exactly know how and why.

Let’s recap the main points: policy must have a social context; without catering to that noise, the neatness of models means nothing. In fact, it could have net negative effects. Maths is used for arguing both sides of the problem: lock down; stay smartly open. The virus continues to act in ways and along biological pathways that we don’t entirely understand. Data from 78 countries show, according to Levitt, that most countries are reaching their peak and the number of new cases every day show “signs of recovery”. The second wave will reach us sometime in October.

This being so, let me conclude by giving an example from the world of firearms. What’s the ideal rifle [read: policy] I want to have?

The ideal rifle would be short and light so soldiers can operate and move in and out of confined spaces, long-range, highly accurate, have knock-down power, reliable in all conditions (rain, mud, dust, sand) and temperatures, robust, combine the pluses of open- and closed-bolt systems, without their minuses, should have a soft kick with minimal muzzle rise so the shooting arc remains almost level when used in automatic mode, should be very easy to field-strip and assemble, should have minimum moving parts, not have small parts that can be lost or damaged while used in the field in combat situations, the muzzle shouldn’t become problematic even when thousands of rounds are being fired, should be inexpensive et cetera.

Sounds like a great wish-list. Except, anyone who knows firearms knows that much of what I have listed here is contradictory! Short and light and long-range is just one; highly accurate with no small parts is another (compare M-4 with AK); no muzzle, unless changed, can take thousands of rounds being fired constantly; there’s no way to keep the shooting arc level in the automatic mode; no rifle can have the pluses of both the open- and closed-bolt systems. All of this is mechanics and ballistics.

So, yes, I can have my ideal rifle in my head but I can’t have it in the real world. Ditto for policy!

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.