You see a problem in your community. Maybe it’s the homeless person on the side of the street or the foster child that’s being shuttled between homes. Once being exposed to an injustice or the suffering of others, you want to act. However, many of us want to move on a perceived problem quickly because we assume we have all the pertinent information. We can often fall into the trap of thinking a snapshot gives us all we need to know about a problem. Based on our limited knowledge, we then convince ourselves we have the silver bullet needed to eradicate the problem entirely.
Sadly, this leaves us charging into a problem wholly unprepared to unpack and work through the depth and complexity of a person’s circumstances. Even worse, rushing in to help may lead to unintended harm or consequences. If we want to avoid these pitfalls, we have to understand the importance of data collection in our fight to affirm human dignity.
Data assists to help and not hurt
There’s a remarkable (yet true!) story that highlights the phenomenon of unintended consequences well. In the 1950s, the country of Borneo had a major malaria outbreak. Government officials called the United Nations and asked what could be done to bring an end to the suffering of the Bornean people. The UN knew immediately what was needed. We understood that mosquitoes were responsible for carrying malaria and transmitting it to humans, so the solution seemed simple enough - if we get rid of the mosquitoes, we get rid of malaria!
With everything figured out, the UN dropped tons of DDT - a chemical compound used as an insecticide (that’s now illegal in most countries). It did its job - it killed most of the mosquitoes and put an end to the malaria epidemic. It also killed a particular type of wasp that fed on a certain type of caterpillar. Without the wasps, these caterpillars exploded in population. These caterpillars ate the thatch used to make the thatched roofs in Borneo, causing people’s roofs to start caving in. Geckos in the area also started eating DDT-contaminated insects, which made them very lethargic and easy prey for the local cats. This caused the cats to die, leading to an explosion in the local rat population. These rats carried typhoid, which ultimately led to an even worse epidemic than the initial malaria outbreak. To solve the problem, the British Royal Air Force actually had to parachute in cats to help end the new outbreak the UN had created! This is a prime example of the real (and serious) consequences our actions can have on others if we don’t take the time to challenge our assumptions and solicit input from outside our inner circle.