© 1999 Michael S. Hyatt

Every once in a while something comes along that makes me shake my head in amazement. Recently, an article in The Oregonian newspaper told the story of Donald MacGregor, a psychologist with the Decision Science Research Institute in Eugene, Ore. MacGregor has been given a government grant by the National Science Foundation to study how people perceive the risks associated with the Year 2000 Computer Problem.

MacGregor’s conclusion is described in the first sentence of the article: “When it comes to the terrors of Y2K, Americans are the nervous Nellies of the world.”

High anxiety about the Year 2000 is, as MacGregor puts it, “purely an American phenomenon.” He explains that people in other parts of the world remain blissfully oblivious to the supposed threats of widespread computer malfunctions.

MacGregor also has a theory which explains the difference between Americans and everyone else:

    We are the one country in the highly industrialized world that has never come through a calamity. England had the Blitz. Japan had a nuclear attack. Germany, France, Italy were devastated by war. We’ve never had a major destruction of our infrastructure and come through the other side with the knowledge that life continues.

Because Americans have not experienced a national disaster since the Civil War era, he says, we don’t really know if we can survive one. Hence, there is widespread panic and fear about the looming Millennium Bug situation.

When I read the story, I had two immediate thoughts: 1) our tax dollars at work! I know the government loves to waste money, but this is unbelievable; and 2) where is this guy getting his information? A recent survey found that barely 10 percent of the American public has any concern whatsoever about potential Y2K problems. If this is paranoia, as MacGregor calls it, I’d hate to see what would happen if, say, half the country became worried about Y2K.

The Associate Press picked up the story the following day and wrote, “MacGregor’s main message is that preparations for real or imagined threats can be hazardous. Hoarding large amounts of food can lead to spoilage and illness, for example.”

MacGregor’s logic is faulty on many counts. He thinks that since European nations were able to rebuild and recover from the war, it must mean the war wasn’t so bad after all. Tens of millions of dead and trillions of dollars in property damage would say otherwise. If some countries had been better prepared — if England had heeded Winston Churchill’s warnings about Hitler, for example — the level of misery might have been greatly lessened.

I am not aware of anyone who is predicting that human life will become extinct because of Y2K. No matter how bad the situation may turn out to be, it is certain that life will go on. We will recover. MacGregor’s argument is completely beside the point. The real issue is this: is there a risk? And if so, can we reduce the impact by making preparations now?

MacGregor also says there are hazards and risks in making preparations; therefore, we are better off if we do nothing. There is no doubt that someone, somewhere, will be injured by an electric generator, wood stove, chain saw, or propane heater during the next six months. There is also no doubt that people have been injured and killed constructing the houses which protect us from the elements. Does MacGregor think we should shun homes and live in caves to avoid the hazards of carpentry? Does he believe we should walk to work since many people are killed in automobile accidents? Should we avoid all prescription medicine because of the occasional overdose?

Rather than our lack of experience in living through cataclysmic disasters, maybe there are other reasons why Americans are more concerned about Y2K than the rest of the world. Americans originally developed computers. We wrote most of the software programs. Our society is more dependent on advanced technology than others, and maybe we better understand how fragile it can be.

MacGregor’s entire view of Y2K is based on one key assumption. He says, “I suspect that there will be very few disruptions in the U.S. We’re about as ready as you can get.”

If he possesses undeniable evidence that disruptions will be few, I’d love to see it. It would surely take a load off my mind. The fact is, no one knows for sure what will happen.

MacGregor’s notion that our country is about as ready for Y2K as we can get would be comical if it wasn’t so ridiculous. Anyone willing to invest 30 minutes of time researching the issue would be forced to conclude that we are far from ready. With a mere two months to go, most critical organizations are still working frantically to upgrade their computer systems. Among the many recent reports of lagging Y2K project deadlines, we learned that thousands of American schools may not be able to open in January, and the Internal Revenue Service has yet to complete the basic inventory of its information systems.

If you agree with MacGregor’s key assumption — that the risk of serious disruptions is essentially zero — then, of course, any preparations will be foolish. But the risk is not zero; the risk is real. (I wish we were able to specifically quantify the risk. Unfortunately, that’s not possible with this complex, global, and unprecedented situation.) If the risk was truly zero, then government agencies and major corporations would not be spending billions of dollars developing vast contingency plans to deal with possible problems.

As long as the risk of Y2K disruptions is real — however unquantifiable it may be — it is not foolish to make preparations. If some government-funded psychologist wants to use terms such as “nervous Nellies” and “paranoia” to describe those of us making preparations, then so be it. But in my book, the man who sees danger and refuses to take refuge is the real fool (cf. Proverbs 22:3).

Regrettably, many people are citing MacGregor’s research as evidence that we should not bother preparing for Y2K disruptions. However, I would like to cite his research as evidence that two of the more useless things known to mankind are psychology and government grants.

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