Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Recognizing Mortal Danger: Do Humans Suck At It?

I'm watching a special on the fifth anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake & tsunami on TLC right now. The special is a mix of home video of the tsunami's impact and interviews with its survivors.

What's most amazing is how people stand on the beach watching the monster wave right offshore ... and do nothing.

In cases when an enormous, killer wave is bearing down on the beach, just a few hundred yards away ... people just stand there and remark about how strange the wave looks.

In cases when there wasn't a big wave but the water simply came up quickly like an overflowing bathtub, again, people just stand there as the water rises around their ankles.

The first couple of times it happens, you think, "What idiots! Not recognizing the disaster that's about to hit them!"

But then they show Banda Aceh. And Phuket. Everywhere, the same response. It's no wonder the death toll was so high -- an impossible-to-comprehend 230,000 people. Most people didn't react until it was too late.

Humans like to use the fable about the boiling frog to illustrate failing to recognize danger. You know how it goes -- a frog placed in a pot of water brought to a boil through gradual temperature increase won't try to escape (not actually true). OK, so the story would be more grotesque with a boiling human. But are we any better at recognizing a slowly rising mortal danger?

In other news, delegates in Copenhagen put off dealing with global warming and U.S. Senators haven't gotten around to working on clean energy & climate legislation.
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