Sunday, November 13, 2005

"like the captured spy"

I came across a quote somewhere in recent reading (I don't recall where) that tickled my fancy. It was, then-US-EPA director, William Ruckleshaus's observation on what might happen when a risk assessment pointed to a need for dire action. The full quote is:
When the action so forced has dire economic or social consequences, the person who must make the decision may be sorely tempted to ask for a "reinterpretation" of the data. We should remember that risk assessment data can be like the captured spy: if you torture it long enough, it will tell you anything you want to know. So it is good public policy to so structure an agency that such temptation is avoided.
I suspect that many opinions, assessments, estimates and analyses have a similar characteristic. Now I have a concise simile for it.

(The quote comes from Ruckleshaus's address to Princeton University on 18-Feb-1984 as reported under the title "Risk in a Free Society" in "Risk Analysis" (the journal of The Society for Risk Analysis) 1984; 4(3):157-162.)