Monday, November 12, 2001

OKAY. Twelve hours later, and cooler heads are prevailing. Flight 587 appears to have suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure. No evidence of terrorist involvement. Leroy Sievers, executive producer of Nightline, sends out a daily promotional e-mail for the show (sorry, no link -- it's just an e-mail list -- but you can sign up here) and had this to say today:
What is interesting is the relief that people feel every time a new report comes out that tends towards a mechanical problem, rather than terrorism. Two months ago, I don't think that people would have felt relief that there was a catastrophic problem on a plane. I guess that's sort of like the difference between "natural causes" and "murder." Our reaction to that kind of mechanical problem would have been horror before September 11th, now we seem relieved. Mechanical failure is something we can understand.

Indeed, this morning, I felt visceral anger at the thought that our nation's ineffectually feeble attempt to beef up airline security had enabled some extremist nutcase to plant a bomb on the plane. This evening, I feel -- yes -- relief that Al-Qaeda apparently hasn't the resources to launch a serious second strike at this time.

Sure, it's a troubling coincidence that this plane should crash so soon after 9/11. But the only reason to make the leap and assume that another terrorist act was committed today -- in the complete absence of evidence, and in direct contradiction of all that has been said at every level of government and by countless witnesses -- is that it feels better to have someone to blame. Someone to punish.

Reality check: We exist in a violent, chaotic, unfair Universe, in which no one is imbued with a right to exist in perpetuity.

And here's what has to be understood about the nature of coincidences: The human mind never evolved to fully comprehend the very large numbers within which the Universe routinely generates coincidences. Our survival as a species was never dependent on that kind of comprehension (until, perhaps, very recently).

In that context, some of us may understand intellectually, in the abstract, that the failure rate of commercial aircraft is tiny compared to the number of people-miles flown per year. But we have no innate sense of what it would mean to experience a single, continuous flight lasting many hundreds of years -- which is what it would take for any one passenger to be statistically certain of experiencing a plane crash first-hand.

What we do surely understand is small numbers. We understand the number 2 very, very well, because we've had so much experience dealing with it. Some studies even show that counting and small-number basic math may be hard-wired from birth! And so, when a plane crashes two (2) months after an act of terrorism, the human brain is naturally inclined to process the number 2 and think of it as evidence of a meaningful pattern -- one that can be comprehended instinctively -- even as it takes place within the universe of billions and trillions of events, among which the relationships are too vastly intertwined ever to comprehend.

Not only do we exist in a violent, chaotic, unfair Universe -- one that is also chockablok full of events that the human mind instinctively interprets as suspiciously coincidental -- the reality is that coincidences are statistically likely to happen, both often and regularly. What would be truly suspicious would be if seemingly inexplicable coincidences -- such today's crash happening so soon after the 9/11 attacks -- failed to occur on a regular, statistically predictable basis.

For more on the subject, I heartily recommend the book Innumeracy : Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences by John Allen Paulos. And if enough of you buy it through this link, eventually my household will earn enough to replace my recently-busted shoelaces.

(All that said, our elected representatives still apparently lack the will to impose a fix on airline security, and it's just a matter of time before some extremist nutcase exploits the holes in the system and blows a few holes of his own. When it happens, we should demand the resignation of every member of Congress who has frittered away these past two months in the hopes of scoring partisan political points.)

("Don't make me angry.
You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.")


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