By Michael LaBossiere
As this is being written, Irma is scouring its way across the Atlantic and my adopted state of Florida will soon feel her terrible embrace. Nearby, Texas is still endeavoring to dry out from its own recent watery disaster. The forces of nature can be overwhelming in their destructive power, but poor reasoning on the part of humans can contribute to the magnitude of a natural disaster. As such, it is worth considering how poor reasoning impacts disaster planning both by individuals and by the state. Or lack of planning.
While human activity can impact nature, the power of nature can kill any human and sweep away anything we can construct. As such, even the best planning can come to nothing. To think that because perfect planning is impossible we should simply let nature shake the dice for us would be to fall into the classic perfectionist fallacy. This is to engage in a false dilemma in which the two assumed options are doing nothing or having a perfect option. While there are no perfect options, there are almost always those that are better than nothing. As such, the first form of bad reasoning to overcome is this (fortunately relatively rare) view that there is no point in planning because something can always go wrong.
Another reason why people tend to not prepare properly is another classic fallacy, that of wishful thinking. This is an error of reasoning in which a person concludes that because they really want something to be true, it follows that it is true. While people do know that a disaster can impact them, it is natural to reject the possibility until it becomes a reality. In many cases, people engage in wishful thinking while the disaster is approaching, feeling that since they do not want it to arrive it follows that it will not. As such, they put off planning and preparation—perhaps until it is too late. This is not to say that people should fall into a form of woeful thinking (the inference that whatever one does not wish to happen will happen)—that would be equally a mistake. Rather, people should engage in the rather difficult task of believing what is supported by the best available evidence.
People also engage in the practice of discounting the future. This is a mistake of valuing a near good more than a future good simply because of the time factor. This is not, of course, to deny that time is a relevant factor in considering value. In the case of mitigating disasters, preparing now incurs a cost in time and resources that will not pay off until later (or even never). For example, money a city spends building storm surge protection is money that will not be available to improve the city parks.
Connected to the matter of time is also the matter of probability—as noted, while disaster preparation might yield benefits in the future, they might not. As such, there is a double discount: time and probability. As such, a rational assessment of the value of disaster preparation needs to consider both time and chance—will disasters strike and if so, when will they strike?
As would be suspected, the more distant a disaster (such as a “500 year flood”) and the less likely the disaster (such as a big meteor hitting the earth), the less people are willing to expend resources now. This can be rational, provided that these factors are given due consideration. There is also the fact that these considerations become quite philosophical in that they are considerations of value rather than purely mathematical calculations. To illustrate, determining whether I should contribute to preparing against a disaster that will not arrive until well after I am dead of old age is a matter of moral consideration and thus requires philosophical reasoning to sort out. Such reasoning need not be bad reasoning and these considerations show why disaster planning can be quite problematic even when people are reasoning well. However, problems do arise when people are unclear (or dishonest) about what values are in play. As such, reasoning well about disaster preparation requires being clear about the values that are informing the decision-making process. Since such considerations typically involve politics and economics, deceit is to be expected.
Another factor is nicely illustrated by a story from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The tale relates how a lord asked his doctor, a member of a family of healers, which of the family was the most skilled: According to an old story, a lord of ancient China once asked his physician, a member of a family of healers, which of them was the most skilled in the art:
The physician, whose reputation was such that his name became synonymous with medical science in China, replied, "My eldest brother sees the spirit of sickness and removes it before it takes shape, so his name does not get out of the house.
"My elder brother cures sickness when it is still extremely minute, so his name does not get out of the neighborhood.
"As for me, I puncture veins, prescribe potions, and massage skin, so from time to time my name gets out and is heard among the lords."
While there are some exceptions, politicians and leaders often act to get attention and credit for their deeds. As the above story indicates, there is little fame to gain by quietly preventing disasters. There is, however, considerable attention and credit to be gained by publicly handling a disaster well (and great infamy to be gained by handling it badly). As such, there is little appeal in preparation for it earns no glory.
There is also to fact that while people can assess what has happened, sorting out what was prevented is rather more challenging. For example, while people clearly notice when a city loses power due to a storm, few would realize when effective planning and infrastructure modification prevented a storm from knocking out the power. After all, the power just keeps on going. Motivating people by trying to appeal to what will be prevented (or what was prevented) can be quite challenging. This can also be illustrated by how some people look at running. Whenever a runner drops dead, my non-running friends will rush to point this out to me, claiming that it is great they do not run because otherwise they would die. When I try to point to the millions of runners who are healthier and live longer than non-runners, they find the absence of early death far less influential.
To be fair, sorting out that something did not happen and why it did not happen can be rather complicated. However, what seems to be an ever-increasing frequency of natural disasters requires that these matters be addressed. While it might not be possible to persuade people of the value of prevention so that they will commit adequate resources to the effort, it is something that must be attempted.