Problem Solving: The Symptom or the Cause?


The NFL has just announced a $30 million donation to support research into the long-term consequences of repeated head injury after a study found that NFL players have a much higher risk of degenerative diseases of the brain, including Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease.  This is certainly a good thing and such research is likely to be of benefit to many people, not just NFL players.

On the other hand, it also suggests that the way we go about solving problems tends to put the cart before the horse.  Professional, college, and high school football is an inherently dangerous game; the action on the field is physically violent by its very nature, and the fans watching from the stands or their living rooms revel in the violence.  Metaphors of war dominate our talk about football: the players are heroes, gladiators, fighters, brave, and so forth, and teams battle for victory, overcome their foes, play offensive and defensive games, and so forth.  Activities that are inherently violent inevitably lead to wounds, injury, and trauma.  It may be laudable to research ways in which injuries can be healed or compensated for after the fact; nonetheless, after the fact treatments never actually restore the victim.  Treating them is not the same as solving the problem.

American soldiers maimed in Afghanistan now number in the thousands.  These injuries include amputations, scarring, reduced bodily function, and brain injuries—even being near an explosion can cause brain damage from the percussion (shock waves) of the explosion.  There are also the long-term effects of PTSD, which often lead to ruined lives and suicide.  Much has been learned about treating such injuries, and great progress has been made in prosthetic devices for amputees.  Nevertheless, lost limbs are not restored, and damaged brains are not made whole again.

These injuries are the symptoms, the effects, of violence.  Treating them is a good thing, but it is nonetheless not addressing the problem (the cause of the injuries).  Violence can never be made safe.  The real solution is avoiding violence.

But it is not only in football and war that we try to solve problems by treating the symptoms.  We try to solve the drug problem by incarceration and rehab; we try solve the problems of our educational system by more testing (of the results, that is after the education has occurred) and sending failed students to community colleges, where they can fail again; we try to solve our economic problems by taxing incomes that have already been earned rather than by addressing the problems of income disparities.  Many of our laws are after the fact—forbidding that which has already occurred, an example being the attempts to regulate Wall Street after it had already crashed the economy.

We often think that identifying the symptoms is to identify the problem, but that is not the case.  We often try to solve our problems by attacking the symptoms, but that it not correct.  Would that we were better at identifying the problems before they led to the symptoms.  But given that, at least in the case of football, we do know what the problem is, the game itself, perhaps we actually like the problems and are willing to pay the price of their symptoms—or at least to let others pay that price.

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