Normal Conversations

Having thrown another obscure reference that was nearly immediately understood in email correspondence with Steve, I pondered how it was possible to have normal conversations before google. As it turns out, the answer is inherently unknowable. (At least for another few days).

Question Authority

Interesting short article in WiredQuestion Authorities: Why it’s smart to disobey officials in emergencies. It turns out that people in the World Trade Center on September 11 who ignored official instructions fared much better than those who followed the rules:

The report confirms a chilling fact that was widely covered in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. After both buildings were burning, many calls to 911 resulted in advice to stay put and wait for rescue. Also, occupants of the towers had been trained to use the stairs, not the elevators, in case of evacuation.

Fortunately, this advice was mostly ignored. According to the engineers, use of elevators in the early phase of the evacuation, along with the decision to not stay put, saved roughly 2,500 lives.

People too often believe there must be someone higher up who really knows what’s going on. One thing I heard often before the Iraq war was that, even if the public hasn’t seen convincing evidence of a real threat from Iraq, they (the administration) “must know something we don’t.” After all, why else would they be pursuing this policy?

I suppose it’s reasonable, or at least comforting, to think that someone wouldn’t get into a position of power like President or Secretary of Defense without being pretty damn smart and on top of things, but unfortunately I don’t think history supports that assumption.

I’m actually usually the last one to make arguments that begin with “history shows that…”, but I think in this case we can at least say that history shows that we shouldn’t make unfounded assumptions about the competency of powerful decisionmakers.