Death of an Anecdotal Species?

We of the species homo sapiens may not exactly deserve the “sapiens” label, since the terminology homo anecdotus or something similar might be more accurate. We react to what we see and what we hear, and tend to believe stories others tell, rather than facts, mathematics, or statistics.

When I was with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there was such a furor over hazardous waste sites that, effectively, almost the entire political staff of the Agency was canned, including the Administrator, as well as the Secretary of the Interior. While I thought then, and still do, that the issue was badly bungled by the Administration, and that’s putting it mildly, they did have a certain point in believing that people were overreacting. That was because people could see the hazardous waste sites and the handful of children and others who suffered damaged health, as well as the contaminated neighborhoods.

HOWEVER… in perspective, as shown by a later series of studies, the “Superfund” hazardous waste sites were far from the most dangerous environment concerns. Yearly deaths from exposure to household radon were far more dangerous, by five to twenty times, as was asbestos exposure, which has resulted in more than 10,000 deaths annually. Cancer deaths from smoking exceed 300,000 annually, and automobile accidents account for some 45,000. Yet the Superfund political upheaval resulted in Congressional action headed toward impeaching the head of EPA and resulted in the resignations of both the Interior Secretary and the EPA Administrator, and the conviction of an assistant administrator for perjury before Congress.

Another example of this anecdotalism is exemplified by people who refuse to fly because they feel driving is safer. For them, the anecdotal example of the infrequent air crash where 300 people die has a greater impact that the fact that most people are ten thousand times more likely to die in an automobile accident than in a plane crash.

On a far larger scale, take the issue of cometary or asteroidal impacts on the earth. Based on what was seen, i.e., anecdotal evidence, scientists originally estimated that the chance of a “space rock” large enough to create a catastrophic impact on earth, such as the one thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs, was roughly once every million years. Then, more digging and satellite photography analysis discovered more craters, and the odds were increased to something like once every 100,000 years. Then, several years ago, several scientists made the rather obvious observation that the craters that had been discovered were all where we could see them — on land — but that the earth’s surface is something like seventy percent water. More investigation and correlation with historical and climate records revealed several more near-catastrophic water impacts over the past 10,000 years.

Then, recent astronomic discoveries have revealed that the population of near-earth objects [NEOs] big enough to wipe out cities or larger sections of the planet is approaching more than a thousand, and that their orbits aren’t nearly so stable as was originally surmised. Yet NASA, the U.S. space agency that might be considered to have a certain concern about space-related potential disasters, blithely informed Congress several years ago that any really reliable survey of NEOs would cost $1 billion, about seven percent of its annual budget — or one percent if spread over seven years — and that NASA had no intention of spending money on what is clearly a real threat, nor did it even have a draft contingency plan of what it might do if one of those objects was discovered to be on a collision course with earth, even though some respected astronomers have now estimated that the chances of a city-destroying [or worse] object hitting earth in any given century are about one in ten. In short, since we haven’t seen anything like this recently, except maybe something did explode above Siberia a century ago that we still can’t explain fully, it can’t be as real as the need to pinch pennies for other projects that don’t bear on the survival of our entire species, as well as a few thousand others.

The anecdotal mind-set may function adequately in a hunter-gatherer society, but just as we’ve given up, largely, chipped flint hammers for better tools, isn’t it time to go beyond the anecdotal mind-set, one that’s clearly limited to what we can see, and use a wider and deeper perspective?

Because, over time, if we don’t, earth will see the end of our anecdotal species.