McNamara’s Fallacy In Action

South March Highlands

The City of Ottawa has been warned by scientists, several times and in several studies, that TFD fragments the eco-system in the South March Highlands (SMH) and dramatically reduces the ability of the SMH to withstand change.

This warning is a well-considered and inevitable scientific conclusion, backed by years of research, that sadly cannot be scientifically quantified.  Questions like: How much further change can the SMH take? How much change is introduced by urban development? How long will the Conservation Forest survive, etc simply cannot be quantified.

So does that make the unmeasurable any less important to decision-making?

McNamara's Fallacy

Robert McNamara  was Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War and was obsessed with making decisions based on only what could be measured.  He also had a predilection to prefer only information that fit into his metric-based world view.  This led to increasingly absurd decisions by the US Government for many years until they finally withdrew from the Vietnam conflict.

Sociologist Daniel Yankelovich described a process he called McNamara’s Fallacy to explain why some of us have a tendency to under-value what cannot be measured.  The mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead has also referred to this tendency the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness“.

McNamara’s Fallacy is a process having 4 steps.

  1. Measure what can be measured.  This is fine as far as it goes.
  2. Disregard that which can’t be measured or give it an arbitrary quantitative value.  This is arbitrary and misleading.
  3. Presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t very important.  This is blindness.
  4. Say that which can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist.  This is madness.

TFD Fallacy

The Terry Fox Drive (TFD) extension is an excellent example of McNamara’s Fallacy in decision making.

Step1.  The City haphazardly commissions several piece-meal studies of the South March Highlands (SMH) area to identify existing ecological conditions and count species.  However, only easily studied vegetation is studied.  There are no comprehensive studies of fauna, insects and non-vascular plants.

Step 2.  Issues such as the size of eco-passages are ignored since the impact of the size on the effectiveness of eco-passages cannot be predicted (disregard what can’t be measured).   This leads to mitigation planned for TFD relying on experimental ideas whose effectiveness has no established scientific evidence at all (assigning an arbitrary value to them).

  • Instead emphasis is placed on having several smaller (measurable, so more must be better) passages instead of fewer, larger (more costly) ones. 
  • The location of these eco-passages is inferred from a 3-month winter study of wildlife movement because a summer study is too hard to do for the wide-variety of species affected.

Step 3. The long-term impact of losing ½ of SMH to development is never studied (too difficult to measure so don’t look at it at all).  The City has never examined its economic justification for TFD relative to its environmental impact (no cost/benefit analysis) because it is presumed that ecological value is unimportant (because it is difficult to measure).

Step 4. Councillor Wilkinson asserts that TFD can be ignored when promoting SMH as an NCC-owned wilderness park.  The the long-term effect of fragmentation of habitat and species kill-rate caused by TFD don’t exist (because they can’t be measured).

The reality is that the effect of TFD cannot be mitigated because it cannot be measured.  The very concept of mitigation depends on establishing an equal and compensating benefit to make up for the impact.  This is not possible when the impact cannot be measured.

Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle holds that where there is uncertainty regarding an approach that could cause significant harm, the uncertainty should be resolved before proceeding.

This principle is well established both in law and in medicine.  It is a statutory requirement in the European Union.  Perhaps it is also time for City Hall to apply it to the environmental assessment process too.

In the meantime, anyone that contemplates allowing TFD into the South March Highlands does so at great peril to the environment and to all the species that live in it.

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