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Problem Solving That Removes Warning Signs

When we make some change, there are sometimes visible bad results. These are a clue that there are likely also hidden bad results. If we come up with a solution targeted only at the visible bad results, we often leave the hidden bad results in place and make them harder to find and fix.

For example, the processing they do to vegetable oil makes it taste bad. The bad taste is a visible problem. It indicates the processed oil may be unhealthy. We’re lucky to have a warning we did something wrong. Some problems come with no warnings. However, companies responded by removing the bad taste from the oil. They didn’t take the warning seriously and investigate what hard-to-see problems it warns us of. And removing the taste in a factory hides the warning from consumers. Most consumers don’t know that they are eating something which tasted bad at an early stage in the process.

No consumer would think it was reasonable to take rotten food out of trash, which tastes bad, and then subject it to an industrial procedure which removes all the flavor – and then sell it to people who don’t know it used to taste bad. What’s done with vegetable oil is somewhat like that.

Another example involves the modern lifestyle and processed food diet in general. It led to some known problems. These problems were then dealt with. But maybe those problems were valuable warnings and a bunch of other less-visible problems were not dealt with. Concretely, they fortify some of our foods with things like vitamin A, C or D to address visible problems like scurvy or rickets. They know that their processing removed vitamins and other nutrients. Then they put a few things back into the food to prevent the most visible problems people have. But they don’t put all the missing nutrients back. And then consider the nutrients they know about and can re-add reasonably effectively. Vitamin supplements are often less effectively than eating whole foods containing the same vitamins. But even supposing it works, how much do they re-add? Enough to prevent visible problems. Not the optimal amount for health. Vitamin D recommendations and fortifications are based on studies of bone health and giving people enough to avoid rickets. However, vitamin D is useful for other things besides bone health, and the recommendations and fortifications are significantly lower than what our ancestors would have gotten from their diet and lifestyle (vitamin D comes partly from food and partly from sun exposure from UVB rays). So natural health and paleo diet type people recommend more vitamin D than the food companies fortify their foods with.

Another example is I have heard that it’s bad to punish your dog for growling. Growling is an early warning sign of a problem. If you get your dog to stop growling, then it may e.g. attack another dog without warning. (I haven’t fact checked this.)

Sometimes we go out of our way to get early warnings. An example is bringing canaries into coal mines. You could see a canary dying as a problem and solve it by keeping the canary at home. But then it’d be harder to know about more important problems like gasses building up towards explosion in a mine. Solving the problem by keeping the canary at home seems absurd in this context, but people often take similar actions for other issues.

This is partly related to how a lot of problem solving is (often accidentally) aimed at symptoms rather than underlying causes. People often try to fix the immediate problem they see instead of digging deeper to understand what’s really going wrong. By fixing the visible problem, they can cover up some other problems, accidentally or intentionally. Problem symptoms should often be seen as valuable warnings that help us know where to investigate, rather than as things to get rid of ASAP.

Elliot Temple on August 6, 2022


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