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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Part of Nature

Posted in Environment, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 19, 2011
Katrina 0002

Image by smiteme via Flickr

Humans have a tendency to think of themselves of being outside of nature and often as being better than the rest of the natural world. This view has been embraced by intellectuals as well as the masses, and it often serves to blind us to the reality of the situation-at least until another disaster reminds us that we are firmly embedded in the natural world.

Our latest reminder is, of course, the terrible disaster that has struck Japan. The shaking of the earth and the rising of the sea struck a terrible blow against humanity and their works, thus showing that we are not beyond the reach of nature. Even the nuclear disaster reveals that we are vulnerable to nature as well-radiation is part of the natural world and though we might have thrown a leash on that dragon, it is always ready to consume us with its fire.

This situation, like all the other disasters before it, serves to show that despite all our technology and pride, we are still very vulnerable. While we so often see ourselves as masters of creation, in a matter of seconds we can become its victims. This is something that we should keep in mind.

While our delusion that we are somehow outside of nature does contribute to our failure to plan and prepare adequately, we are also hindered by other factors.

First, while we often overreact to threats from other humans (as our war on terror indicates), we generally tend to under estimate the threats posed by the forces of nature. So, for example, while we are dumping billions to fight a few rag tag terrorists, we are ill prepared to face the natural disasters that are certain to strike. Katrina, of course, shows just how well prepared we have been for such disasters.  This is no doubt due to a key factor in human psychology regarding threat assessment. Also, there is the rather obvious fact that railing against human threats is great fodder for politics (and contractor profits), while being concerned about natural disasters seems to merely bore most of the public (at least until disaster strikes).

Second, in a nice bit of irony, the places that humans tend to find most appealing also tend to be places where disasters occur. An obvious example is the coast of Florida. It is beautiful, but also routinely hammered by storms. While it would make some sense to stay away from disaster areas, I doubt this is a viable option. After all, I really like the coast, too.

Third, planning and preparing for disasters seems to fall, psychologically, under the same sort of area as eating healthy and working out. Everyone knows that these are good ideas, yet people seem to find it very hard to actually act on that knowledge. It might be because the effort does not have an immediate payoff. Eating a bag of Cheetos feels good immediately while exercise feels bad to most people and won’t yield immediate results. Likewise, disaster planning and preparation does not yield immediate results and requires effort and expenditures that will probably only pay off in the future.

If my analogy holds, it would seem to follow that just as people often need coaches and trainers to motivate them to work out, we also need people who can motivate the public into preparing for disasters. Or, failing that, we need people and organizations that are willing to do the work for everyone else.

Fourth, people have a tendency to live in denial about future problems. Just as a smoker will not think much about lung cancer, people tend not to think about the next disaster. Just as a smoker will try to quit when they learn of a friend dying of lung cancer, we do worry about disasters when one strikes. So, for example, now that the Japanese reactor is spewing radiation, the rest of the world is poking at their reactors. Of course, just as most smokers go back to smoking after the funeral, we will be right back to ignoring things after we forget about Japan.

As the human population continues to increase and as our civilization grows ever more reliant on easily broken technology, the impact of disasters will continue to grow. After all, the more people who live in more concentrated areas, the greater the number of people who will be killed in a natural disaster. There is also the concern that our own actions are making the world more prone to more serious weather events. As such, we need to reconsider how we handle disaster planning and preparation or we can be sure that the coming disasters will be even worse.

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Dealing with Disastrous Dates

Posted in Guest Post by Michael LaBossiere on August 25, 2008

You’re out on that all-important first date with someone you think you would like to know better, or it may be someone you just met through common friends. But the evening is turning out to be a disaster right from the word goes. You don’t know if you’re supposed to end the date abruptly or soldier on thinking that things will take a turn for the better. If you’re not familiar with the fact that dates, especially the first ones, can and will go wrong more often than not, here are a few pointers to help you out in times of awkwardness:

If your date is more preoccupied with other things rather than focusing on you, try a direct or indirect approach to see why this is so. Ringing cell phones can be extremely annoying in the middle of a date, as can your date’s obsession with the other men/women in the restaurant or club. If it continues in spite of your protests, excuse yourself and head for home.

If your date is drunk or on the way to getting there, firmly refuse any more alcohol for your table. If he/she’s sober enough to understand what you’re saying, tell them that it’s time you both went home, and that maybe you can talk to each other the next day when your heads are clearer. If not, call a taxi or see them safely home before you go on to your place.

If the conversation takes an ugly turn, apologize if you’re the one who said something incendiary. If not, tell your date politely that they’re being rude and that it would be a good idea to steer the topic to something more neutral. If he/she still continues to rant and rave, wish them goodnight and find your way home.

If you’re embarrassed by the way your date is behaving – being rude to the staff at the restaurant, eating noisily, talking loudly or displaying poor table manners – wait out the evening patiently. At the end of the meal, politely decline offers to see you home or hints of a second date. Instead, thank your date for a nice evening and leave alone.

The worst part of a first date is when one person is interested in pursuing the relationship while the other is not. If you’re the interested party, take a hint when your date is vague about meeting again or calling you. Don’t press for phone numbers and times of calls. If you’re not too keen on the relationship, be honest but kind in letting down the other person.

By-line:

This post was contributed by Heather Johnson, who writes on the subject of best dating services. She invites your feedback at heatherjohnson2323 at gmail dot com.

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Myanmar Aid

Posted in Environment, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 10, 2008

Myanmar was recently devastated by a natural disaster, something that is all too common these days. As always, the United States and other countries are pitching in with aid and support. However, there is evidence that the Myanmar military is seizing the aid supplies rather than turning it over to those who are truly in need.

The military junta that now controls Myanmar seems to be acting in this way to limit the number of foreigners in the country and also for other political reasons. It is, sadly, not uncommon for those in power to take actions to maintain their power at the expense of those who are suffering.

This situation reveals many problems, but two problems that stand at the forefront are these: First, the effects of natural disasters are getting increasingly more severe. Part of this is due to the growth in human populations (more people means that more people are hurt and killed). Part of this is due to urbanization and population concentrations. Perhaps part of this is also due to climate changes. Whatever the causes, it is clear that we need to be far more prepared to deal with environmental dangers. Currently, our preparations are inadequate and our defenses are extremely weak. Myanmar is yet another event in a series that includes New Orleans and other devastated cities. Second, political and social factors have a huge impact in such disasters. As just noted, we are poorly prepared and poorly defended. Also, when a disaster hits, there is often interference with the aid attempts and/or it is poorly implemented (as in the case of Katrina). While we cannot control the weather (yet) we can influence the actions of other people. As such, much needs to be done in creating a more effective way of dealing with the human impediments in such disasters. Sadly, the lust for power, greed, stupidity and incompetence are hard foes to fight.

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