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.


  1. Jon Garfunkel Jan 28

    Thanks for the link– I see that 47 people found it interesting in as well. Jon

  2. Jaldhar H. Vyas Jan 28

    Yep. My wife heard an announcement over the PA advising everyone to stay put…and immediately ran like hell. Whether it was womans intuition or ESP or what that compelled her I don’t know but she went The four people from her company who stayed behind never made it out.

    But remember the WTC had already survived one bombing. There was no reason at all to suppose it would collapse completely this time. And it is a fact that panicked stampedes often cause more harm than the reasons for the panic. It is also a fact that during a fire you are better off taking the stairs than the elevator. (By the time my wife was ready to go, she was quite pregnant at the time, the elavators weren’t operation anyway.)

    So what lesson do I learn from this? In anomalous situations, its all a crapshoot. So go with your gut feelings. “Obeying” and “questioning” authority both imply some kind of rational analysis. But it was subrational instinct that saved many lives that infamous day.

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