November 21, 2007

Systematic Sloppiness

Cognitive HazardMy first post at Practicalethics is practicalethics: It is 10 O'clock, do you know what your cells are? - about the amazingly persistent problem of contaminated cell lines. It has been known about for more than 40 years, people have spent years fighting it, yet it persists. This is a nasty example of how systematic sloppiness can become in human institutions.

Of course, today in the UK the big news is of course that the government lost 25 million child benefit records on two discs - including names, dates of birth, bank and address details. This is of course another great example of monumental institutional sloppiness and tardiness (the discs have been lost since 18 October, and the banks were alerted 12-18 november).

Hmm, for a going rate among identity thieves (according to a UK newspaper I saw) of 10-50 for the bank details of a person, those discs are worth at least 72.5-362.5 million pounds given the stated number of accounts. Even if they are well encrypted (which everybody seems to doubt) that would be worth a significant decryption effort. Maybe the Storm supercomputer will get hired?

Sloppiness seems to be the natural state of human thinking and action. It takes special effort to avoid, and non-sloppiness is a rather noteworthy situation. That is why people remark about meticulous scientists or precise bureaucrats. The consequences of sloppiness depends on the variance of utility between similar choices in a context. In everyday life it does not make much difference: in science, managing millions of people or life-or-death situations it does. Maybe a cognitive enhancement against sloppiness, something that gives us the mental and physical energy to jump through all the hoops would help us much more to live in our complex world than a mere memory enhancement?

Posted by Anders3 at November 21, 2007 06:36 PM