Thursday, May 16, 2013

What Kind of Error Would You Rather Make?

Yep.  It's another anchoring post.  My last one is here.

The plan was to get a few boat friends together, pick up a Navy mooring in Weems Creek, raft together, then go out to Mexican Café on Saturday night to celebrate an early Cinco de Mayo.  If we had one too many margaritas, we only needed to walk/row back to the boats to sleep instead of driving home.  The weather report was encouraging, for warmth and some sunshine after a chilly spring that has seemed to go on forever.  We arrived at the planned meeting point at Weems Creek after a brief pleasant Friday afternoon sail to find … disappointment.  No moorings were available; they were occupied by a number of dilapidated, neglected or abandoned boats – one covered with a threadbare tarp, one without a mast, one trailing a deflated waterlogged dinghy. There was still some prime anchoring real estate available, so we set the hook and let out plenty of chain, and got our heads into weekend mode.

We spent a pleasant day chatting with other boats in the anchorage, old acquaintances who had returned to the Chesapeake for the summer.  We met some new folks who, drawn by our hailing port of Northport, Michigan, came over and introduced themselves as fellow Michiganders new to the Chesapeake.  And then our gang showed up, some by boat, and others came to the restaurant by land.  Much laughter ensued; later there were even fireworks we could watch from the cockpit.  The derelict boats spoiling the mood were reduced to a minor annoyance, grit under my fingernails or pebble in my shoe, but the irritation never completely went away.  As the boats themselves will never go away, which is of course the issue with abandoned boats – they cost tax dollars to remove.

There was a recent situation elsewhere in A.A. County that was diametrically opposite: a police launch came along side an anchored boat and very politely said that one of the shore residents had suggested perhaps that boat had stayed long enough and should be moving on.  The heavy irony here is that the boat in question was an extremely beautiful and well-maintained one; the owners, Evans Starzinger and Beth Leonard, long-distance sailors well-known in the cruising community, were aboard; and there was no chance of mistaking this for a dilapidated boat about to be abandoned.   (For Evans’ take on the incident, go to their blog  and scroll back to the post from 4/16/2013; another blogger's reaction to his post is here) In addition, there are no regulations prohibiting anchoring in the Chesapeake as long as the boat is properly lit and not blocking a channel or access, so I'm not sure which I find more disturbing, that a shore resident thought he/she had a right to control who anchored nearby, or that the local law enforcement did nothing to disabuse him/her of that notion.

The inconsistent, in fact contradictory way local authorities react to anchored boats in the county is confusing, or worse.   In one case, boats are allowed to sit unattended for long periods; in the other, a properly-anchored and attended boat was asked to move.

In statistics they call them Type 1 and Type 2 errors.  The technical definitions include lots of confusing phrases like “failing to reject the null hypothesis,” but it’s simpler to think of them as “false positives” or over-reacting, and “false negatives” or under-reacting.  See, in the real world, no matter how you make the decision rules, it is likely that there will be a few extremes or special cases that aren’t properly covered.  The trick is to define the rules in a way that minimizes harm from these errors.  In some cases it is very clear to see which type of error is the more dangerous.  If the rule, for example, is about a new cancer screening, then a false positive means some people will get unnecessary followup tests even though they don’t have cancer.  But a false negative means some early cancers will be missed until it is too late, and people could die.  So you skew your test to have very few false negatives, even if that means you might have more false positives – you over-react.  The Coast Guard does the same thing with “mayday” calls – they’d rather go out on a false alarm or multiple false alarms, than miss someone in danger that they could have helped.  In other cases, false positives are clearly the more dangerous error: for all its faults, our judicial system is skewed to minimize the chances of an innocent person being found guilty, even if that means that some guilty may go free.

There are other cases when it is not clear whether type 1 or type 2 errors are worse.  My favorite example of this is the rules for eligibility for public assistance.  No matter how we write the rules, some people just won’t fit in those boxes and their circumstances won’t be covered properly.  If we write the rules too broadly, there is a chance that some freeloaders will game the system.  But if we write the rules too strictly, there is a chance that some folks who really deserve help will fall through the cracks.  There’s no obvious right or wrong answer, but which type of error we are more tolerant of says a great deal about our values as a society.

Perhaps the case of abandoned boats in Weems Creek is a “Type 2” error, and the seaworthy boat asked to move along is “Type 1” error?  In writing public policy, it is hard to find a perfect balance.   Write the anchoring rules too lax, and you get derelict boats that we all (somehow) have to deal with.  Write the rules too stringently, and no one ever anchors out and learns to appreciate the natural beauty of the Chesapeake.  Right now, we’re making both types of errors; do we have the worst of both? Which error are we more concerned about? What do we value?
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A slightly different version of this post was first published in the Annapolis Capital-Gazette on May 11, 2013:

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