The conviction of the six Italian scientists in October 2012 raised the hackles of scientists and rationalists everywhere, fearing a repeat of the trial of Galileo. As the facts of the case were translated into English for the world’s press to laugh at, we learned that the case was not just a matter of the judiciary bowing to the pathos of the grieving families and delivering a sentence that sounds like something out of a reverse witch trial: the scientists will be imprisoned for not being able to predict the future.
It was more complicated than that; that’s the one thing we normally can predict. The head of the agency had called a desultory press-conference merely to allay public fears. The standard attitude of all authorities is that unless they are subdued, the public will go into a panic and overestimate the danger of a potential disaster situation.
Most people thought there was one rotten thing about this whole affair. And I agree with them on what they thought was rotten. For the best analysis of why trying to quantify risk is futile, see the superb book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan. The idea of throwing these people in gaol because of the hindsight bias is ludicrous, betrays a lack of understanding of how hard forecasting is and sets a precedent which surely means scientists in similar agencies will overstate potential risks, leading to panic and many more false alarms.
Good. Because it’s this last point that might actually expose the other, less obviously rotten thing about this fiasco. As it is, authorities always want to quell panic; they fear, almost as much as they fear a disaster, the idea of people panicking. What exactly is so bad about people needlessly evacuating their town? It’s inconvenient for the people, but why do the authorities adopt such a conservative view of disorder?
This attitude is all but ubiquitous and is fascinatingly chronicled in Amanda Ripley’s The Unthinkable which examines how people behave in disaster situations. The gist of it is that people don’t panic enough. Instead, people underestimate the danger of a disaster, even when it’s happening around them. This goes for earthquakes, fires, shootings, plane crashes and other high stress situations. I won’t spoil the book. It’s worth reading for no other reason than for the incredible acts of heroism and courage it details. The central thesis, though, is the surprising way that people freeze-up rather than panicking during a disaster. It doesn’t help when authorities’ strategies are based on ways to reduce panic, to make people evacuate in an orderly, slow fashion, when clearly people need to panic in a life and death situation and get the hell out. The same lax attitude pervades drills; people hate the idea of doing proper drills because they are disruptive and annoying — and they are. But in an absurd misalignment of risks and returns, people prefer to be unperturbed now, rather than alive later. Of course there a whole range of cognitive and behavioural reasons for this, but the situation is not helped when authorities cynically hold perfunctory press-conferences, out of fear that if they mention any threats at all people will lose their heads.
This provides an interesting comparison with grave, substantiated threats like nuclear war or climate change where people cannot be made to panic at all.