Sunday, January 02, 2005

Unexpected events

Like the chicken who trusts in the benevolence of the farmer, I don't expect tomorrow to be too much different from today. This is rational; inductive reasoning works. Still, it yields up probabilities, not certainties, and it's as valid as the evidence on which it's based. Yet an unwarranted optimism may lead us to assume that something which is unlikely to occur simply won't.

This is true, if trivially, about the weather. During the cold snap that preceded Christmas I bundled up for my morning ride to work. Checking the internet to see what measure of cold I'd suffered, I noticed some of the record high temperatures in time past. On a day last month when it was a meager 18 deg. f. I noticed that the record max temp had been 74 in 1924. I couldn't imagine a winter day that warm. Two weeks later, New Year's Day, I took off for a sunny ride in record-breaking 69 degree weather and, checking just now, see that the min temp for that day was minus 14 in 1881.

Naïve optimism can have tragic results when we've too much of the grasshopper in us and too little of the ant. We're beginning to find out that many lives could have been saved in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other coastal areas that were inundated by the tsunami. Seismic sensors had detected the earthquake early enough for people on distant coasts to be warned, but there were many reasons why the warnings did not come in time to help, prominent among them the sense that an event of this magnitude could not really be occuring. There are many news reports of this hesitancy. See, for example, these accounts:
LA Times
Khaleej Times (India)
And this one about a 10-year-old British girl who was able to save the lives of other tourists because she had learned about tsunamis in school a couple of weeks before her family went to Thailand on vacation.

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