A Scary Tale of Two (Almost) Tornados, and the Dangers of Getting Risk Wrong
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
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.