‘Are you suggesting we think about switching off his respirator?’ The Consultant nodded, ‘not immediately, but yes’.
Our son was born unable to breathe. He was transferred to a specialist unit, a tracheostomy and respirator attached to his tiny body. Over the first week, they tried periodically to see if he would breathe on his own. He wouldn’t. Now we sat with the Consultant, an MRI scan of our son’s brain in hand and a grim diagnosis: even if he made it through the week, he faced a short and cruel life.
At the time I was a life-tenured professor at Cambridge University. Unable to sleep, I scoured the medical library, clinging to the hope that our Consultant was wrong; since almost no healthy newborns have MRIs, how could we really be sure our son’s was abnormal? Following up with a team at the Mayo Clinic confirmed that hope: it didn’t mean that our son would be OK, but it did mean the information available to our Consultant was far from conclusive.
Suffice to say, our son is now a strapping teenager, climbing mountains, doing well at school and, frankly, a lot more sociable than me. Medics saved his life but the story serves as reminder that even the most able professionals are susceptible to mental biases.
I, for my part, am no longer a Professor. Instead I dedicate my time to building two things into government: a model of human behavior that recognizes and corrects for human miscalculation; and evidence of what really works to change the outcomes we care about. It is my mission to build a world where policymakers question the long-held assumptions on what makes a successful public service and where experimentation is rewarded above stubborn allegiance to untested ideas.
This is also the mission of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities initiative; a $42 million investment providing mid-sized US cities with the opportunity to take their use of data and evidence to new heights. Over the last year, BIT has worked with What Works Cities to answer more than 20 different versions of the “what works?” question. We’ve found out how to get residents to fix blighted properties faster, ways to recover debt repayments for city services like parking and sewer billing, and how the police can attract more applicants from under-represented groups.
Sometimes the results are surprising.