Upselling Reality

A few commentators on the internet have once again drawn attention to what is called the “normalcy bias“.  To those who know me, if may come as a bit of a surprise to know that I fully recognize my own tendency to occasionally reject unpleasant realities.  And, again, I can frequently be more optimistic than the facts might warrant.

A good case in point was my expectation that the Fukishima nuclear disaster would proved to be little more than “messy” and “containable”.  That optimistic expectation, as it happens, hasn’t worked out all that well. 

Of course, at the time, it was hard to balance the potential for further disaster against the very real human tragedy that was already in full bloom as a direct result of the earthquake and tsunami.  And, in terms of an actual “body count”, those more immediate effects were (and still are) the most significant. 

At last count, the death toll in Japan had passed 10,000, with another 17,000 still missing.  The final count will, of course, rise further still, and there will be other longer-term effects as well.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster, as reported by the UN, is now expected (over the full lifespan of it’s “survivors”) to produce something like 9,000 deaths, the vast majority of which are attributed to the long-range potential for “excess cancers” in the surrounding population.  The “short-term” direct deaths numbered nearer to 45 souls.     

In the week or two following the Japanese quake and tsunami, it was a bit difficult to assess the damage to the nuclear plant.  Most of the contingency plans were still being tested, of course.  But, for the general public, it was merely impossible to know how bad the situation was when so much disinformation was being released by TEPCO and the Japanese government.  Maybe they weren’t sure either, but, then again…. 

And, this, unfortunately, is the most real danger of our collective “normalcy bias”.  It is simply true that our political leaders will (almost inevitably) take advantage of our normalcy bias….often lying about the real dangers we face.

This sort of “upselling” of reality is just part of the game….meaning human nature, of course, and all its various foibles.  Sometimes it is simply the desire to avoid personal responsibility.  At other times, it is simply run-of-the-mill normalcy bias…politicians are humans too, I think, and will tend to deny even the most obvious catastrophe.

So, why should any of us worry about low probability events?  The simplest way of dealing with the various risks we face is to assume that they won’t be that bad in the end.  We can simply assign comforting probabilities to the worst outcomes, regardless of contrary evidence.  Low probability = Less Concern.  

Simple enough, right?  Assuming, of course, that you can, in fact, reasonably and accurately assign those probabilities…that you have – or are being given – real data and have a baseline perspective that isn’t inherently corrupted by, well, the wrong sort of bias. 

And, what, we might wonder, is the “wrong” sort of bias?  Good question.  Here, society can take it’s pick among several popular fables such as “Chicken Little” (or “Henny Penny“), “The Boy Who Cried Wolf“, “The Ant and the Grasshopper“, and, perhaps, “The Scorpion and the Frog“.  The morals of these fables:

  • Don’t be unreasonably afraid, nor believe everything you are told.
  • Liars, even when telling the truth, won’t be believed.
  • It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.
  • You may not be able to escape your nature, even when it works against your own best interest.

See, that’s not so difficult, is it?

Harry Tuttle


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