TCS Daily

The Limits of Rationality

By Iain Murray - October 28, 2002 12:00 AM

For all those infuriated by scientific scams, junk science and pseudoscience, Skeptical Inquirer is a godsend. The magazine of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) takes a rational look at some of the sillier ideas humanity wraps in pseudo-intellectual clothing. UFOs, mysterious beast, psychics and miracles are their stock-in-trade, all investigated with close attention to detail and, often, a sense of humor. Occasionally, however, the magazine allows strict rationality to drive out other important considerations.

This tendency was demonstrated in a recent article, A Skeptical Look at September 11th: How We Can Defeat Terrorism by Reacting to It More Rationally, by two research scientists, Clark Chapman of the Southwest Research Institute and Alan Harris of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Much of their thesis is sensible. They argue that the 9/11 attacks and the anthrax scare caused over-reactions in the American people, which caused a massive diversion of scarce resources away from areas they were needed and increased inconvenience needlessly. They are certainly correct when they complain that "when police chiefs of countless middle American communities beef up security for their anonymous buildings, and search fans entering hundreds of sports fields to watch games of little note, official reactions to terrorism have run amok. To imagine that Al Qaeda's next target might be the stadium in, say, Ames, Iowa, is far-fetched indeed."

But they take the argument further: "Finite medical resources were diverted to comforting people that their flu symptoms weren't anthrax... or testing to see if they were. Charitable funds that would have nurtured the homeless flowed, instead, to wealthy families of deceased Wall Street traders. Funds for education and pollution control go instead to 'securing' public buildings and events. Billions of extra tax dollars are spent on military operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan rather than on enhancing American productivity. If we truly believe in 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' and that each life is precious, we must resist selfish forces that would take advantage of our fears and squander our energies and fiscal resources on overblown security enhancements."

The authors' argument is based on the proposition that our misperception of risk to individual lives causes us to misallocate resources. For them, one life is one life whatever ends it. There is much to be said for this view, but it leads us in directions that seem odd, to say the least. Because cataclysmic natural events might cause many more fatalities than terrorism, they argue that research into methods to predict and prevent them may have a stronger call on our resources. A system to defend the planet from asteroids, for instance, may be a better form of expenditure than the war on terror.

This is, at base, an actuarial approach to public safety, rather than a skeptical one. A true skeptic would realize that there are other things at play here than risk. They nod briefly in the direction of an anthropological understanding of the situation when they talk about the "natural human" reaction to multiple deaths, but it is essentially mentioned only in passing. But what the authors repeatedly fail to give weight to is the fact that the 9/11 attacks were not just attacks on people and property. They were attacks on symbols and values that the American culture gives great weight to. Because they were an attack on such things as democracy, the capitalist system, the nation's prestige and many other things besides, they must be treated differently from the many regrettable deaths in traffic accidents each year.

Instead, our two skeptics assert, "That the 9/11 terrorists maliciously attacked the symbolic and actual seats of our economic and military power (WTC/Wall Street and the Pentagon) should concern us if we truly think that future attacks might destroy our society. But who believes that?" Why the coda that we should only be concerned if society is to be destroyed? No value is given in this analysis to the deterrent effect of a strong reaction, to the lives that may be saved in other countries, or to the extremely high value we, as a culture, place on our symbols.

It has long been recognized that rationality should not drive all decisions. The classic example used in business school is of the sports stadium where strong sunlight falls constantly on one side of the stadium, potentially burning half the crowd. The rational answer would be to segregate attendees by skin color, with those with darker skins assigned to the sunny side of the stadium. Of course the suggestion outrages us, because as a culture we place a higher value on freedom from discrimination than we do on protection from sunburn.

As a culture, we place a higher value on freedom from attack than we do on freedom from traffic accidents. It may be logically misplaced, but anthropologically the reasoning is sound.



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