Beware of geeks bearing formulas. That's the lesson most of us have learned from the financial crisis. The "quants" who devised the risk models that induced so many financial institutions to buy mortgage-backed securities thought they had reduced risk down to zero.
Turns out they got a few things wrong. Their formulas were based on only a few years of actual data. Or they failed to take into account the possibility that housing prices would fall. Or that the market for mortgage-backed securities might suddenly stop functioning.
The lesson seems clear. Don't allow a whole system to become hostage to the workings of some geek's formula. Keep in mind the possibility that the real world might not behave as the formula indicates.
But, astonishingly, our society seems about to forget that lesson, just as it should have been learned. Congress is poised, at least if the Obama administration gets its way, to pass major new laws on carbon emissions and on health care whose success depends on geeks bearing formulas.
Consider carbon emissions. Carbon dioxide is a harmless gas, not a pollutant. But geeks bearing formulas tell us that increasing amounts of it will heat up the world's climate and cause catastrophic damage some decades hence. Al Gore is so certain of this that he tells us all debate must end -- disagreeing is like denying the Holocaust.
But the Holocaust happened, while the disasters that Gore predicts have not. When you try to predict climate, you are dealing with even more factors and more unknowns than when you try to predict financial risk. Prudent people will want to hedge against some risks that seem possible. But imposing huge costs on the private sector economy -- raising the price of electricity for everybody -- solely on the basis of some geeks' formulas seems, well, not prudent. But that's what Barack Obama tells us we must do.
Or consider health care. One element of proposed health care reforms is restricting care to procedures that are indicated as optimal by "quality metrics." The Obama campaign called for comparative effective research to produce such metrics. The problem, as Dr. Jerome Groopman of Harvard Medical School points out, though not in these words, is that the geeks keep producing different formulas. Or as Dr. Scott Gottlieb of the American Enterprise Institute writes of the comparative effectiveness research mandated in the House-passed stimulus package, "The results of studies are always being made obsolete by new science."