The other day I wrote about the complex story of scurvy and Vitamin C. But, of course, it's not just an interesting story of the ambiguities of scientific discovery and the unobviousness of explanations, it's also a metaphor for the collapse of complex systems (like our financial system).
But what isn't a metaphor for the collapse of our financial system?
Consider: when sailing journeys took months away from shore, and blockading ships might stay on station for years, the discovery that something in fresh citrus juice prevented scurvy was incredibly valuable, and gave the British navy a distinct edge in performance. No one was going to monkey with it, though no one really understood what the causes of scurvy were, or how the juice prevented it.
When steamships cut travel time, fresh food (which also contains Vitamin C) was more available, and there was no long-term blockade duty, the need to specifically protect against scurvy grew much less. No one still knew the causes, but they had other things to think about.
So they thought about buying from domestic citrus producers, and shifted from high Vitamin C Sicilian lemons to much less effective West Indies limes. They improved production and storage, using copper vessels, and reduced Vitamin C further.
The safety margin had been reduced, but it didn't become obvious until someone made another long trip away from fresh food--in this case, exploring the Antarctic. And scurvy again became a problem. Fortunately, in this case, the problem was limited to a few self-torturers obsessed with testing human survival.
A few years ago, we opened up the wall of our kitchen to do some work, and discovered that someone (in our family mythology, "Uncle Louie"--many people have a relative who overclaims his ability, but gets used because he's free) had casually cut through all the studs to run a waste stack vent pipe. The only thing supporting that corner of the house turned out to be the cast-iron waste pipe from the upstairs bathroom. Undiscovered, this could have led to serious damage at that end of the house.
We're coming out of a period where we made a lot of things easier at the cost of unknowingly assuming huge amounts of risk. But, when times are good, those who carefully hedge against risks show lower returns. I don't have a solution to this, except to suggest a little humbleness as to what can be known ahead of time. Everything that was a complete mystery before is obvious after. Try to remember how little was known before. Vitamin C didn't get isolated until the early 1930s.
On the other hand, there was nothing "unknown" about the risk of cutting through support studs on a balloon frame house. Uncle Louie has no excuse.