[Paleopsych] NYT Op-Ed: Scaring Us Senseless

Christian Rauh christian.rauh at uconn.edu
Mon Jul 25 14:00:52 UTC 2005

What is a "false flag"?


shovland at mindspring.com wrote:
> I think the bombings in London were "false flag" operations.  
> Turkey and Egypt as well, and some incidents in Iraq.
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Premise Checker <checker at panix.com>
> Sent: Jul 24, 2005 5:04 PM
> To: paleopsych at paleopsych.org
> Subject: [Paleopsych] NYT Op-Ed: Scaring Us Senseless
> Scaring Us Senseless
> http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/24/opinion/24taleb.html
>     Glasgow
>     I WAS visiting London last Thursday when a second wave of attacks hit
>     the city, just two weeks after the traumatic events of July 7. It is
>     hard to avoid feeling vulnerable to this invisible enemy who does not
>     play by known or explicit rules. Of course, that is precisely the
>     anxiety that terrorists seek to produce. But its opposite -
>     complacency - is not an option.
>     The truth is that neither human beings nor modern societies are wired
>     to respond rationally to terrorism. Vigilance is easy to muster
>     immediately after an event, but it tends to wane quickly, as the
>     attack vanishes from public discourse. We err twice, first by
>     overreacting right after the disaster, while we are still in shock,
>     and later by under-reacting, when the memory fades and we become so
>     relaxed as to be vulnerable to further attacks.
>     Terrorism exploits three glitches in human nature, all related to the
>     management and perception of unusual events. The first and key among
>     these has been observed over the last two decades by neurobiologists
>     and behavioral scientists, who have debunked a great fallacy that has
>     marred Western thinking since Aristotle and most acutely since the
>     Enlightenment.
>     That is to say that as much as we think of ourselves as rational
>     animals, risk avoidance is not governed by reason, cognition or
>     intellect. Rather, it comes chiefly from our emotional system.
>     Patients with brain lesions that prevent them from registering
>     feelings even when their cognitive and analytical capacities are
>     intact are incapable of effectively getting out of harm's way. It is
>     largely our emotional toolkit, and not what is called "reason," that
>     governs our capacity for self-preservation.
>     Second, this emotional system can be an extremely naïve statistician,
>     because it was built for a primitive environment with simple dangers.
>     That might work for you the next time you run into a snake or a tiger.
>     But because the emotional system is impressionable and prefers
>     shallow, social and anecdotal information to abstract data, it hinders
>     our ability to cope with the more sophisticated risks that afflict
>     modern life.
>     For example, the death of an acquaintance in a motorcycle accident
>     would be more likely to deter you from riding a motorcycle than would
>     a dispassionate, and undoubtedly far more representative, statistical
>     analysis of motorcycles' dangers. You might avoid Central Park on the
>     basis of a single comment at a cocktail party, rather than bothering
>     to read the freely available crime statistics that provide a more
>     realistic view of the odds that you will be victimized.
>     This primacy of the emotions can distort our decision-making.
>     Travelers at airports irrationally tend to agree to pay more for
>     terrorism insurance than they would for general insurance, which
>     includes terrorism coverage. No doubt the word "terrorism" can be
>     specific enough to evoke an emotional reaction, while the general
>     insurance offer wouldn't awaken the travelers' anxieties in the same
>     way.
>     In the modern age, the news media have the power to amplify such
>     emotional distortions, particularly with their use of images that go
>     directly to the emotional brain.
>     Consider this: Osama bin Laden continued killing Americans and Western
>     Europeans in the aftermath of Sept. 11, though indirectly. How? A
>     large number of travelers chose to drive rather than fly, and this
>     caused a corresponding rise in casualties from automobile accidents
>     (any time we drive more than 20 miles, our risk of death exceeds that
>     of flying).
>     Yet these automobile accidents were not news stories - they are a mere
>     number. We have pictures of those killed by bombs, not those killed on
>     the road. As Stalin supposedly said, "One death is a tragedy; a
>     million is a statistic."
>     Our emotional system responds to the concrete and proximate. Based on
>     anecdotal information, it reacts quickly to remote risks, then rapidly
>     forgets. And so the televised images from bombings in London cause the
>     people of Cleveland to be on heightened alert - but as soon as there
>     is a new tragedy, that vigilance is forgotten.
>     The third human flaw, related to the second, has to do with how we act
>     on our perceptions, and what sorts of behavior we choose to reward. We
>     are moved by sensational images of heroes who leap into action as
>     calamity unfolds before them. But the long, pedestrian slog of
>     prevention is thankless. That is because prevention is nameless and
>     abstract, while a hero's actions are grounded in an easy-to-understand
>     narrative.
>     How can we act on our knowledge of these human flaws in order to make
>     our society safer?
>     The audiovisual media, with their ability to push the public's
>     emotional hot buttons, need to play a more responsible role. Of course
>     it is the news media's job to inform the public about the risk and the
>     incidence of terrorism, but they should try to do so without helping
>     terrorists achieve their objective, which is to terrify.
>     Television images, in all their vividness and specificity, have an
>     extraordinary power to do just that, and to persuade the viewer that a
>     distant risk is clear and present, while a pressing but underreported
>     one is nothing to worry about.
>     Like pharmaceutical companies, the news media should study the side
>     effects of their product, one of which is the distortion of the
>     viewer's mental risk map. Because of the way the brain is built,
>     images and striking narratives may well be necessary to get our
>     attention. But just as it takes a diamond to cut a diamond, the news
>     industry should find ways to use images and stories to bring us closer
>     to the statistical truth.
>     Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who teaches risk management at the University
>     of Massachusetts at Amherst, is the author of "Fooled by Randomness:
>     The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the Markets."
> _______________________________________________
> paleopsych mailing list
> paleopsych at paleopsych.org
> http://lists.paleopsych.org/mailman/listinfo/paleopsych


                        ~ I G N O R A N C E ~

              The trouble with ignorance is precisely that
              if a person lacks virtue and knowledge,
              he's perfectly satisfied with the way he is.
              If a person isn't aware of a lack,
              he can not desire the thing
              which he isn't aware of lacking.

              Symposium (204a), Plato

More information about the paleopsych mailing list