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A Scary Tale of Two (Almost) Tornados, and the Dangers of Getting Risk Wrong
Regular followers of this blog know that I often write about people who get risk wrong and with their apparent dumbness demonstrate the dangers of the Risk Perception Gap, the danger that arises when we worry more than the evidence says we need to or less than the evidence says we should. The hope is that by raising awareness of the Risk Perception Gap as a risk all by itself, and explaining why it happens, we can reduce some of the dangers it poses.
I usually write about others who make these seemingly irrational mistakes. But I make them too, even though I know that the Risk Perception Gap - getting risk wrong - is a danger all by itself, and even though I understand the psychology of why these mistakes happen. So let me offer The Tale of Two Tornados (or tornadoes, either is acceptable), one about the mistake some other people made and one about me making the same dumb and dangerous mistake, that together offer an ominous lesson.
The World Cup final was a tense match between soccer powers Germany and Argentina. Germany was favored but Argentina more than held its own and play ended scoreless and headed into half an hour of overtime. With six minutes left in OT and the exciting match tied 0 - 0, and penalty kicks looming to decide the biggest sports tournament on the planet, viewers of a TV station in upstate New York were stunned when their screen went black, and moments later, up came the local weather guy with a tornado watch.
Now in case you are unsure, a ‘watch’ means conditions are right for the formation of severe weather, and a ‘warning’ means some sort of destructive weather has actually been spotted nearby. So a warning is less threatening than a watch, but still, it’s pretty dire news, only issued when violent weather - potentially deadly weather - is likely. (thanks for an alert reader correcting me here. i originally had it backwards!)
So you might think that viewers would welcome information about a potentially imminent THREAT TO THEIR LIVES!!!! And perhaps some did. But not the ones who tweeted their anger and hostility toward the station with messages like;
F-CK YOU GUYS THE GAMES STILL ON ASSHOLES.
WHAT IN THE MOTHER F-CK ARE YOU THINKING?????? THERES 10 MINS LEFT IN THE WORLD CUP AND U BROADCAST A WEATHER WARNING?????????? F-CK
There were also several variations on this rather more direct theme…
“EAT A BAG OF DI-KS”
But check out these clarion examples of the Risk Perception Gap;
HEY PUT THE GAME ON YOU IDIOTS. NO ONE CARES ABOUT A TORNADO.
STOP RUINING MY LIFE.
F-CK YOU FOR RUINING THE WORLD CUP FEED TO WARN US ABOUT ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.
Uh, Earth to those particular Tweeters;
Okay, easy for me to smugly suggest that those folks seemed kind of dumb. But now move to Tornado Tale Two.
I was on my back porch last week as thunderstorms approached, waiting to watch the dramatic rain and wind and lightning, when my wife came home early from an errand after she got a tornado watch for the area on her cellphone. We went online to check the weather radar and sure enough there was a really intense patch of weather in the middle of the line of approaching thunderstorms, and it was heading right for our neighborhood.
We sat on the screened back porch and watched the sky darken as the storm neared. Lightning cracked in the distance. Thunder boomed, ever closer. The wind started blowing harder, whipping around various bits of debris. We saw the tornado watch warnings on the weather radar website as we tracked the storm’s approach.
And what did I do…Risk Man, the guy who claims to understand risk and risk perception psychology, and writes about the dumb mistakes other people make about risk, the guy who should be at least a little less dumb and able to make smarter choices?
I stayed on the porch, and watched as incredibly violent weather tore across my house and yard and neighborhood. Torrential rain blew SIDEWAYS. Lightning hit all around, with the powerful "CRACK" coming at the same instant, meaning the bolts were no more than 1,000 feet away. (Sound moves at 1,100 feet per second. If you see lightning and hear the crack and thunder at the same time…it was close!) There were even tangible signs suggesting a tornado, as within half a minute the wind whipped in first from the west, then from the north, then from the east, and finally from the south, circling our house! (Although this circle was running clockwise and most tornados go the other way.)
Now, being Risk Man and all and not just some schmoe who takes such dangers lightly, I did take certain reasonable precautions. Like, I turned off my computer. Hey, you don’t want THAT to get fried if lightning hits nearby. And you know how you’re supposed to be prepared for emergencies in advance? Well I even thought to myself (but not until the storm was at its raging peak), “where would be the safest place in my house…just in case?” (I presume it’s in our basement between the steel posts that hold up the beams on which the house is built…but that could be the worst place too. Risk Man has not figured this out in advance, as he is supposed to.)
But did I go down in my basement to stay safe, in the middle of high velocity winds whipping in circles, bending the tops of thick old 70-80 foot high trees at 45 degree angles? Nope. I stayed on the screened porch to watch the exciting weather…THAT AT ANY MOMENT MIGHT HAVE KILLED ME.
I learned later that either a tornado or a ‘microburst’ (destructively powerful thunderstorm-generated winds that just don’t twist) damaged buildings and tore up hundred-foot high pine trees a mile from my house in one direction, and that 100 mile per-hour winds damaged buildings and splintered trees three miles in the other direction. Which, with the wisdom of hindsight, made me feel…well…dumb. Dumb, but also normal…as dumb, and normal, as those soccer fans. (Okay, maybe a little dumber. I’m supposed to know better.)
Here’s why it’s normal. It’s innate that we all behave this way. Maybe not so bright or safe sometimes, but the powerful influence of feelings and instincts on our perceptions is a built-in part of human cognition. We can’t just turn our feelings off and become uber-rational objective decision makers. I was excited to see dramatic weather. The soccer fans were emotionally engaged with a tense World Cup final. Those feelings overwhelmed what should have been the more rational recognition, that “I COULD DIE!”
The Tale of Two Tornados teaches us all, including me, an important lesson. A risk perception system that’s supposed to keep us safe but which can sometimes create risks all by itself seems kind of dumb. But it’s what we’re stuck with, and it will remain what we are threatened by, until we take more seriously the potential danger of a cognitive process that is usually influenced more by our feelings than a careful - safer -consideration of the facts.
But that is easier for me say and blog about, than do. Which actually scares me. Maybe that fear will be the impetus that helps me do better next time.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.