Unintended Consequences

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Podcast Transcript

One of the most famous lines in poetry comes from the poet Robert Burns, who spoke of ‘The best-laid schemes of mice and men.’

The line has been used in reference to the fact that no matter how good the plan or the intentions behind it, things will often not go according to plan. 

Indeed, there have been times in history when plans have made things far worse than the problem they were trying to solve. But there have also been times when things have turned out better than hoped for reasons not understood at the time. 

Learn more about unintended consequences and how things sometimes don’t turn out like they were planned on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

There are unintended consequences that we encounter every day, some of which involve decisions that we have made. 

Perhaps you took a job somewhere that required you to move and, as a result of the move, met your future spouse. You didn’t move to meet your spouse, but it was a pleasant result of having made the move. 

There are also sometimes unpleasant results that can be unexpected. 

While these things are a daily part of life, most of them fall under the category of the butterfly effect. 

The butterfly effect is a concept from chaos theory that illustrates how small changes in a system’s initial conditions can lead to vastly different outcomes. It is often metaphorically described with the idea that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world could eventually cause a tornado in another.

The butterfly effect can, and almost assuredly will, lead to unintended consequences, but that really isn’t what this episode is about. 

This episode is about rather direct results that were not intended or were overlooked. As with our personal decisions, sometimes those decisions can result in good things and other times in bad things. 

I want to start with a classic example, which is known as the Cobra Effect. I previously did an episode on the Great Hanoi Rat Massacre of 1902. Basically, the French Government wanted to get the rat population under control in Hanoi and wound up making the problem worse. 

This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened.

The Cobra Effect is named after an incident that took place in the 19th century in Delhi, India. The city had a problem with cobras. Cobras are extremely deadly snakes, and the British, who controlled India at the time, put a plan in place to rid the city of cobras. 

They would provide a bounty for every dead cobra that was brought in. The plan sounded good. The government would harness economic incentives to encourage people to kill cobras, for which they would be rewarded. 

The program worked……at first. Then, people realized that if they killed all the cobras, there would be no more cobras to turn in for bounties. So, they began breeding cobras so they would have lots of cobras to turn in. 

Eventually, the British found out what was going on and ended the program because it was being gamed. 

All of the cobra farmers, having realized that their product was now useless and not wanting to spend the money to raise them, just let them go. 

The end result was more cobras than there were at the start of the program. 

This anecdote is often used to illustrate something known as Goodhart’s Law. Goodhart’s Law states that when something is picked as an indicator, then it inexorably ceases to function as that indicator because people start to game it.

In the case of the cobra example, the goal was to get rid of cobras, but the metric that was measured was not the absence of cobras but, rather, dead cobras. If the powers that be wanted dead cobras, then dead cobras they shall have. 

Another example of Goodhart’s Law has to do with academic citations. 

Academics write research papers and get them published. That is a huge part of what any researcher does. 

However, how can you determine which researchers have had the biggest impact on their field? It isn’t just a matter of who writes the most papers because someone could write a lot of meaningless papers. 

One method of determining the impact of researchers was proposed in 2005 by a physicist named Jorge E. Hirsch. He proposed tracking the number of times a research paper had been cited in other research papers. This became known as the Hirsch Index or just the H-index for short. 

It was a sound idea, but then people began to game the system. Citing yourself counted as a citation, so people began to do that more often. Researchers would swap citations with each other, and some journals would require papers to add irrelevant citations just to boost the h-index of some of their authors. 

Sometimes, the exact opposite of the intended result can occur without having anything to do with Goodhart’s Law.

A case in point was the SS Eastland Disaster. 

After the Titanic sank in 1912, steps were taken to ensure that such a disaster never occurred again. One of the problems with the Titanic was that there were not enough lifeboats on board the ship for all the passengers. 

The United States Congress passed the Seamen’s Act in 1915, which, among other things, required ships to be retrofitted to include enough lifeboats for everyone on board the ship. 

So far, this sounds very reasonable. 

However, most of the ships at that time were not designed for that many lifeboats. One such ship was the SS Eastland.

The Eastland was a passenger steamship that ran sightseeing tours out of Chicago. In order to meet the requirements of the law, they had to put the lifeboats high up on the ship, which was really the only place they could put them.

The problem was that this made the ship extremely top-heavy. 

On July 24, 1915, 2,570 passengers boarded the ship to go out for a cruise. With many of the passengers on the top deck to get a better view, which is what you do on a sightseeing tour, the ship started to list to one side and eventually rolled over. 

The ship was only in 20 feet of water in the river, and it was only 20 feet away from the dock, but 844 people were killed. 

The proximate cause of the disaster was the addition of lifeboats, which were required…..in order to avoid such a disaster. 

Sometimes, rules put in place end up just changing the behaviors of people which nullify any benefit the rules might have had in the first place. This is known as the Peltzman Effect. 

The Peltzman Effect was named after the economist Sam Peltzman, who in 1975 published a controversial paper about the effectiveness of seat belt legislation. 

Peltzman claimed that when safety measures were put in place, it resulted in people taking more risks because they felt safe. The increase in risky behavior would nullify the benefits of the safety precautions put in place. 

To be sure, if you are in a car crash, a seat belt will protect you. However, Peltzman claimed that, in the aggregate, the more safe people felt, the more risks they took. 

This is known as Risk homeostasis. 

In 1968, Sweden changed from driving on the left to driving on the right. For anyone who has ever driven on the side of the road they aren’t accustomed to, you pay very close attention to what you are doing. 

For 18 months after Sweden made the change, traffic fatalities actually went down. Then, once people got comfortable with the change, the number of accidents increased again. 

The comedian George Carlin once made a joke that if you want people to drive safely, you shouldn’t put an airbag in the steering wheel. You should put a sharp spear. 

Sometimes, you just don’t know what the downstream results of something will be because no one has thought out that many steps. 

This example takes place once again in India.

As recently as the late 1980s, India had an estimated 40 million vultures. Then, in the 1990s, the vulture population began to shrink rapidly and dramatically. 

No one was sure what was happening. Vultures were robust birds that played an important part in the ecosystem, especially in India.

India has the largest population of cows in the world, and they are an animal that is sacred in Hinduism, which is practiced by 80% of the population. When a cow died, it was common to let the carcass be eaten by scavengers, in particular, vultures. 

In the 1990s, cows in India began being treated with diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug given to sick cattle. It turned out that even a small amount of diclofenac was lethal to vultures. It would cause their kidneys to stop functioning. 

The vultures at the cows that still had the drug in their system and subsequently died en mass. The vulture population shrank by over 99%. Today, there are only believed to be about 20,000 vultures left in India. 

With the vultures gone, the cow carcasses began to rot out in the open. They became a source of disease and a source of food for rats and feral dogs. Packs of dogs with ample food began attacking and killing people.

Diclofenac was eventually banned in 2006. 

All of this happened because of a very good-intentioned idea of prescribing a drug to sick cows. 

No one could have foreseen what giving cows a drug could have led to. However, there have been other cases where people should have known better. Perhaps the best example has to do with invasive species. 

In a previous episode, I covered the rat eradication efforts on South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic. In the case of South Georgia, the rats were introduced by accident from sailors in the early 20th century. 

However, in some cases, invasive species were introduced on purpose. 

Macquarie Island is an Australian island located between mainland Australia and Antarctica. It was discovered in 1810 by the British. 

As happened whenever humans discovered an uninhabited island, they ended up bringing rats with them. As happened on most islands, the rats began to breed uncontrollably. 

The 19th-century solution to the problem of rats was to introduce a predator, cats. Cats were brought to the island and allowed to roam freely in the hopes that they would kill the rats.

They did get some rats, but the cats found it much easier to attack the seabirds on the island, which had no natural predators. 

In 1878, settlers to the island brought rabbits with them as a source of food. They let the rabbits go wild on the island….and they breed like rabbits. 

By the 1970s, there were 130,000 rabbits on the island that had devastated the island’s vegetation, in addition to the cats and the rats.

Beginning in the late 1960s, efforts were made to control the rabbit population with the introduction of yet another invasive species, the European rabbit flea, which was a carrier of the Myxoma virus, which is deadly to rabbits. 

The rabbit population plunged. With no more rabbits to prey on, the cat population began to attack native seabirds.

In 1985, an effort was made to eradicate cats on the island, and by 2000, all the cats were gone. That was good for the seabirds, but it caused the rabbit population to explode again to its highest levels ever. They began stripping the island of vegetation. 

In 2007, an effort began to wipe out all of the rats, mice, and rabbits in one fell swoop. By 2014, the island was finally declared pest-free….after 200 years. By all accounts, the wildlife and vegetation on the island had had a remarkable comeback in the last 10 years. 

This is hardly the only story of invasive species in Australia. Perhaps the best-known case is that of the cane toad. The cane toad was introduct to Australia in 1935 on purpose to try to feed on the cane beetle, which damaged sugar cane crops. 

One hundred two cane toads were brought into the country, and today, there are now over 200 million of them. 

It turns out that cane toads like to eat a lot more than just cane beetles, and they have spread over much of the eastern part of the country. They also have a poison sac, which means they are killing not only their prey but also predators that would otherwise feed on them. 

Not all unintended consequences are bad. Sometimes, unexpected good things can come from something that might otherwise be bad. 

Perhaps the best example is the Korean Demilitarized Zone or DMZ. The DMZ was created as a buffer between North and South Korea. 

The DMZ is 250 kilometers or 160 miles long and 4 kilometers or 2.5 miles wide.

For over 70 years, the DMZ has been devoid of any human activity. No one from either country is allowed inside. The result has been the flourishing of wildlife. The area has completely gone back to nature, and there are now several species that are only found in the DMZ on the Korean Peninsula. 

It might be easy to laugh at many of these examples that I brought up, but it can be very difficult to know what the second or third-order consequences of actions will be. Often times if people knew what would happen, they never would have done it, which is why they are called….unintended consequences.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

I have two more reviews for you today in an effort to catch up. They both come from Apple podcasts in the United States.

The first is from listener merp alert, who writes:

Perfect podcast for ADHD listeners!

I wish I’d discovered this podcast a while ago. The short episodes and super diverse topics covered are a dream for someone with ADD like me who is curious about everything but has a notoriously short attention span. Feeds my Wikipedia wormhole urges, but without the resultant physical inertia since I can listen to them while doing housework!

The second review comes from listener BillBlaster1, who writes:

Outstanding Podcast

Gary is a vey professional, well-spoken orator and produces and writes excellent podcasts. They are about 15 minutes long and are very informative. Download or peruse his podcast, and you will be entertained. Highly recommended.

Thank you very much BillBlaster and Merp Alerts. Reviews like these are one of the good unintended consequences of doing this podcast.

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.