A Philosopher's Blog

Reasoning & Natural Disasters

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 8, 2017

As this is being written, Irma is scouring its way across the Atlantic and my adopted state of Florida will soon feel her terrible embrace. Nearby, Texas is still endeavoring to dry out from its own recent watery disaster. The forces of nature can be overwhelming in their destructive power, but poor reasoning on the part of humans can contribute to the magnitude of a natural disaster. As such, it is worth considering how poor reasoning impacts disaster planning both by individuals and by the state. Or lack of planning.

While human activity can impact nature, the power of nature can kill any human and sweep away anything we can construct. As such, even the best planning can come to nothing. To think that because perfect planning is impossible we should simply let nature shake the dice for us would be to fall into the classic perfectionist fallacy. This is to engage in a false dilemma in which the two assumed options are doing nothing or having a perfect option. While there are no perfect options, there are almost always those that are better than nothing. As such, the first form of bad reasoning to overcome is this (fortunately relatively rare) view that there is no point in planning because something can always go wrong.

Another reason why people tend to not prepare properly is another classic fallacy, that of wishful thinking. This is an error of reasoning in which a person concludes that because they really want something to be true, it follows that it is true. While people do know that a disaster can impact them, it is natural to reject the possibility until it becomes a reality. In many cases, people engage in wishful thinking while the disaster is approaching, feeling that since they do not want it to arrive it follows that it will not. As such, they put off planning and preparation—perhaps until it is too late. This is not to say that people should fall into a form of woeful thinking (the inference that whatever one does not wish to happen will happen)—that would be equally a mistake. Rather, people should engage in the rather difficult task of believing what is supported by the best available evidence.

People also engage in the practice of discounting the future. This is a mistake of valuing a near good more than a future good simply because of the time factor. This is not, of course, to deny that time is a relevant factor in considering value. In the case of mitigating disasters, preparing now incurs a cost in time and resources that will not pay off until later (or even never). For example, money a city spends building storm surge protection is money that will not be available to improve the city parks.

Connected to the matter of time is also the matter of probability—as noted, while disaster preparation might yield benefits in the future, they might not. As such, there is a double discount: time and probability. As such, a rational assessment of the value of disaster preparation needs to consider both time and chance—will disasters strike and if so, when will they strike?

As would be suspected, the more distant a disaster (such as a “500 year flood”) and the less likely the disaster (such as a big meteor hitting the earth), the less people are willing to expend resources now. This can be rational, provided that these factors are given due consideration. There is also the fact that these considerations become quite philosophical in that they are considerations of value rather than purely mathematical calculations. To illustrate, determining whether I should contribute to preparing against a disaster that will not arrive until well after I am dead of old age is a matter of moral consideration and thus requires philosophical reasoning to sort out. Such reasoning need not be bad reasoning and these considerations show why disaster planning can be quite problematic even when people are reasoning well. However, problems do arise when people are unclear (or dishonest) about what values are in play. As such, reasoning well about disaster preparation requires being clear about the values that are informing the decision-making process. Since such considerations typically involve politics and economics, deceit is to be expected.

Another factor is nicely illustrated by a story from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The tale relates how a lord asked his doctor, a member of a family of healers, which of the family was the most skilled: According to an old story, a lord of ancient China once asked his physician, a member of a family of healers, which of them was the most skilled in the art:

 

The physician, whose reputation was such that his name became synonymous with medical science in China, replied, “My eldest brother sees the spirit of sickness and removes it before it takes shape, so his name does not get out of the house.

“My elder brother cures sickness when it is still extremely minute, so his name does not get out of the neighborhood.

“As for me, I puncture veins, prescribe potions, and massage skin, so from time to time my name gets out and is heard among the lords.”

 

While there are some exceptions, politicians and leaders often act to get attention and credit for their deeds. As the above story indicates, there is little fame to gain by quietly preventing disasters. There is, however, considerable attention and credit to be gained by publicly handling a disaster well (and great infamy to be gained by handling it badly). As such, there is little appeal in preparation for it earns no glory.

There is also to fact that while people can assess what has happened, sorting out what was prevented is rather more challenging. For example, while people clearly notice when a city loses power due to a storm, few would realize when effective planning and infrastructure modification prevented a storm from knocking out the power. After all, the power just keeps on going. Motivating people by trying to appeal to what will be prevented (or what was prevented) can be quite challenging. This can also be illustrated by how some people look at running. Whenever a runner drops dead, my non-running friends will rush to point this out to me, claiming that it is great they do not run because otherwise they would die. When I try to point to the millions of runners who are healthier and live longer than non-runners, they find the absence of early death far less influential.

To be fair, sorting out that something did not happen and why it did not happen can be rather complicated. However, what seems to be an ever-increasing frequency of natural disasters requires that these matters be addressed. While it might not be possible to persuade people of the value of prevention so that they will commit adequate resources to the effort, it is something that must be attempted.

 

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4 Responses

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  1. CoffeeTime said, on September 9, 2017 at 1:31 am

    I can only send my best wishes to you and all of the people in the path of the hurricane over the next couple of days.

    There isn’t actually an increasing frequency of natural disasters, despite the best efforts of the big reinsurance companies to sell that as a reason to pay them. However, as population grows, and as we centralise more and more people and construction and production and assets into the most vulnerable geographic locations, the effect of each disaster grows.

    You are completely right that there is no political advantage in preventative measures, and no political price for not having done more. We hear nothing now of the inadequacies of the levees in New Orleans. If Oroville Dam had broken, it would likely have been the same story. I see a few articles about building regulations in the Houston area, but even those will fade soon. There is little coverage of the many times that anti-ICBM projects have been defunded since the ’80s (not natural disaster, but a potential disaster nonetheless).

    But then we come to the cost of these precautionary measures. If Houston had had regulations limiting the height at which building could be constructed, how much development, living space, production facilities could not have been constructed? Should the government forbid building anything within 5 miles of a coastline? Should California be abandoned now, in case of “the big one”? What are the right precautionary measures to take, balancing risk and cost? Putting aside the easy jabs at politicians and planners, the specifics are quite difficult to arrive at.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 15, 2017 at 3:31 pm

      True; making things safer can often impose restrictions and costs. In doing the cold calculations, these costs need to be weighed against estimates of what they are likely to prevent. We would, of course, need to factor in a dollar estimate for human lives. But this is standard practice and easily done.

      As you noted, restrictions on buildings might have reduced damage sustained, but this comes at a cost.

  2. Anonymous said, on September 12, 2017 at 7:14 am

    I hope that you are doing OK.

    You make some good points. In general, I think this is a reason that we have such difficulty maintaining small government – (remember Ronald Reagan – “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help!”)?

    There are some issues that are best left alone by government, but no one gets re-elected by standing on a stump saying, “Look how well things are going – that’s because I did nothing!”, although in some cases, that’s entirely true. In other cases, things go well despite large amounts of government interference, and politicians are all too happy to take the credit.

    Your last point has been discussed in several contexts, but rather than talk about it in terms of building regulations and government restrictions, why is the onus not on the choices people have made? Why would anyone choose to live in a flood zone, and, more to the point, go back to that flood zone after losing everything in a flood? Is it simply because there are no regulations?

    Although in this time of crisis it seems wrong to bring this up, but there are people in this country who expect that the government will come in to bail them out after their bad choices – there have been a few radio talk shows that discuss this in terms of the morality and ethics of this situation, which seems appropriate on this forum. To what extent should the American taxpayers be held responsible for the choices of people who take this kind of risk?

    It’s not as though the risk has not been assessed – insurance companies, whose business it is to accurately assess risk, have determined that they cannot stay in business if they offer to cover certain areas that are prone to hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and mudslides – and yet people choose to live there. When (not if) the disaster strikes, the emotional appeal is palpable – who would not want to offer aid to these poor people who have lost their homes?

    Perhaps “poor people” is a bad choice – many times this waterfront property is exclusive and expensive, as are the mansions in California that slide down the hills in the mud – attainable only by the very well off. In essence, the middle class are bearing the burden of bailing out (no pun intended) the wealthy.

    I do not mean for this post to be harsh, but it is difficult to broach this subject without sounding that way. It is only the purposeful absence of emotion that drives the point; one that does not come up when the winds are not blowing.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 15, 2017 at 3:37 pm

      That is a reasonable point. As you note, people do elect to live in places they now know are prone to disaster. If people are misled or innocent in their ignorance, that is one matter. But if someone keeps rebuilding a destroyed house with public aid, then it seems reasonable to expect a limit on that aid.

      I’ll need to think through the matter more for a post, but I’d say that if the disaster is truly unexpected, then government help is reasonable–the person is in that situation through no real fault of their own. But, if the person knows they are at risk and insist on being in danger, then the burden should be on them. A good analogy is with Coast Guard rescues. If I am out boating sensibly and my boat is swamped by a rogue wave, the Coast Guard should rescue me. But, if I keep insisting on going out to sea in storms when I have no legitimate reason to be out there, then the Coast Guard has every right to bill me for my willful bad choices.


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