On Catastrophes

Those who live in Boston and have relatives or friends elsewhere probably got some type of message right after the bombings asking if they were okay. The messages most certainly finished with something like “be careful.” For diplomatic reasons, one normally answers “I will” to such advices, while wondering how can we possibly be careful with respect to events of catastrophic nature, such as natural disasters and the unpredictable anger of apparently normal people.

Fortunately, most of us are able to forget these barbarities and go back the normal routine after a certain period of perplexity and fear. Meanwhile, we hope there’ll be people (including ourselves) working on minimizing the chances of catastrophic events to happen. People like President Obama, who is pushing against guns being too easily available, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who argues for a more serious study of the possible asteroids that can threaten our species as a whole.

When we discuss what to do against threatening events of rare occurrence, a statistically appealing counterargument appears. As pointed out by psychologist Daniel Gilbert in an article for Nature magazine in 2011, “because resources are finite, every sensible thing we do is another sensible thing we don’t.”

“We worry more about shoe-bombers than influenza,” Gilbert argues, “despite the fact that one kills roughly 400,000 people per year and the other kills roughly none.” Likewise, “we worry more about our children being kidnapped by strangers than about becoming obese, despite the fact that abduction is rare and diabetes is not.” According to this argument, we should stop spending so much on counter-terrorism and invest more on healthier food, and ignore the battery problems of the Airbus Dreamliner to work on influenza research.

The idea is dangerous, however. First, it makes the outrageous assumption that a certain number of individual lives is less important than a much greater number. Second, it ignores the escalation property: while terrorism didn’t claim many lives in comparison with certain diseases, for instance, if nothing is done terrorists can get as powerful as to possess nuclear weapons, thus becoming extremely threatening. Third, even events that caused no human harm whatsoever, such as a large-asteroid impact, are obviously worth worrying about.

Our moral intuitions, crafted during thousands of years of evolution, make us give more attention to threats caused by agents (like terrorists) than objects (like French fries). That awareness does mean we should be more rational on fighting life threats, but it doesn’t imply we can be more reckless about rare events.

Furthermore, there isn’t really a problem of “resources,” for there are plenty of cases where money is invested in things of questionable value. If you disagree, I’ve got a Renoir painting, a contract with a talented young brazilian soccer player, and a 34.65-carat pink diamond to sell you.

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