Relax, Fatalists and Stay-at-Homes. There's Nothing Wrong With You

Human irrationality is an important and fascinating subject, especially when it's pitted against the assumption that people are rational, which still dominates modern life. Sometimes though evidence of human irrationality is presented in a glib and trivializing argument that amounts to this: "Other people don't think straight, unlike me." Case in point: This Op-Ed piece in today's New York Times, which bemoans evidence that Americans are no longer ready to take big risks—specifically, leave their home towns—in order to chase economic success.

The writers, Todd and Victoria Buchholz, present some fascinating data: Since the 1980s, the likelihood of an American in his/her 20's moving to another state has dropped by more than 40 percent. Adults living with their parents doubled in number in the same period (an effect measured in 2008, before the effects of the economic meltdown). These are some pretty interesting indicators of human non-rationality: Rational Economic Man follows opportunity, but Actual American Person is staying put, and this gap between model and reality, as the authors note, needs explaining: "For about $200, young Nevadans who face a statewide 13 percent jobless rate can hop a Greyhound bus to North Dakota, where they’ll find a welcome sign and a 3.3 percent rate. Why are young people not crossing borders?"

To shore up their point that this behavior is bad news, they cite another bit of post-rational insight: Far from being able to assess their life prospects according to objective economic facts, people have their perceptions shaped by early-life experience. The writers cite Paola Giuliano's research, which indicates that people who were raised in bad economic times tend to believe that success in life depends more on luck than on effort. Thanks to our ongoing economic mess, then, skepticism about the value of chasing a dream to North Dakota is likely to be with us for some time.

Interesting points, but the Buchholzes don't do anything interesting with them. Instead, they use the evidence of human irrationality as a cudgel to bash the stay-at-homes and fatalists. These people, they argue, are bad for the economy. And because the population of this country have been prone to uprooting and migration, these risk-averse young people, they suggest, are somehow just plain un-American.

This is the sort of argument that makes post-rational research sound like just another collection of soundbites, presenting evidence that isn't much different from thousands of other white papers, calls to action, official reports and press releases issued last week. But human irrationality is much deeper subject, and a much bigger challenge, than the Buchholzes allow.

If they had realized this, then their piece wouldn't just condemn people for thinking that luck plays a big role in success. They would defend their own belief that luck does not. And rather than assuming that Nevadans ought to move to North Dakota, they would justify that view. (Maybe it is always better in life to go into exile to chase a bigger salary, but that idea isn't self-evident. There are benefits to staying in a place you know and love, in the warm embrace of family and friends and local culture.)

When a writer uses post-rational research to say "those people don't think straight," s/he is missing the profound point of this work. Which is that none of us think straight, much of the time, and that includes the writer. Post-rational research ought to make people wonder about the hidden forces and invisible biases of their own lives, not just invite them to look down on the supposed folly of others.

I wish the Buchholzes had also looked at themselves, and tried to explain the sources of their belief that restless movement is better than community and love of home; I wish they'd looked at their own early years to explain their (to me) eccentric notion that luck doesn't play an important role in success. I'd love to read a piece about the effects of people's always being well-adapted to their childhood economy rather than the one in which they are adults (but that would require admitting that behavior that's right for one era is wrong for another). That would have been a real engagement with the new science of human nature, which suggests new ways to understand our own beliefs, as well as those of others.

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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