26 November 2015

Among the Things to Thankful For: So Much of What is Alarming is Either Improbable or Unimportant

Exactly one year ago, the media was alarmed at the prospect of an Ebola outbreak here in the US. One of the many reasons for this alarm is that experts could NOT guarantee that an outbreak would not occur. We've now moved on to worry about WWIII, a conflict some think is doomed to start because Turkey just shot down a Russian jet. Again, experts cannot guarantee that this won't escalate. They can only say it is unlikely.

The probability of bad events - events like an ISIS attack in the US, Ebola spreading from Texas into 47 other states, oil prices spiking high enough to cripple the economy - are rarely zero. They could happen and any expert who predicts they are unlikely to happen has to acknowledge that they might. In that sliver of possibility lies so much in the way of ratings potential. What alarms us demands our attention. 

We know what is alarming. Probability and importance are harder to gauge. 

We're notoriously bad at predicting events because causation is so complex. This makes it hard to know what is important. Imagine that 18 months ago, when gas prices in the US were about $3.70, that I told you that by late November of 2015 Obama would have vetoed the Keystone Pipeline and that the US and Russia would be sending troops into Syria where a civil war had spread into surrounding regions and the ISIS fight had even been taken into Paris. If I could accurately predict all of that - something that of course I could not have done 18 months ago - what then would you predict for gas prices? Higher or lower by November of 2015? And by how much? 

It's unlikely that you would have predicted prices would fall from $3.70 to $2,18, a drop of 40%. If prices fall as much in the next two months as they did in the last two months, gas prices will be below $2,00 for the first time since the depth of the Great Recession. Nothing about the scenario I explained - vetoing more gas supply and turmoil in the Middle East - would suggest this.

As it turns out, so much of what demands our attention is either improbable or unimportant. 

Keystone Pipeline never represented more than a small fraction of oil supply and was never going to make any real difference to carbon emissions or gas prices. It was just a symbol of those things, a symbol taken seriously in many quarters in spite of the fact that it was a rounding error in the global market. We focused on it but it lacked importance. It made for good news but it didn't make much difference.

Ebola, by contrast, was important. There is a very real chance of a pandemic that kills millions in this century. But Ebola spreading across the US last year was improbable.

An ISIS attack in the US is possible but it is wildly improbable that you will die in a terrorist attack. In 2011, nearly as many Americans were killed by their own furniture as were killed by terrorists. 

It is important to remember that it is what is alarming that drives ratings, not what is probable or important. And given we experience so little of the world directly, we depend on the media to explain what is going on outside of our house or neighborhood. So what we know about the world beyond our immediate sphere is alarming but it is only occasionally important or even probable, much less real.

So among the things that you have to be thankful for today, be thankful that the world is never as bad as the media makes it out to be. Walk out into the streets or roads around your home and experience the peace there. That's reality. Be thankful for that and remember that with 7 billion people on this planet, there will always be a tragedy playing out somewhere but for now, it is not in your front yard and it is not happening to you. That might seem self-centered and selfish to some of you but if we have to wait for everyone to be happy before anyone can be happy, it'll be an impossibly long wait. Compassion doesn't have to be driven by fear and alarm. 

Rather than focus on what is alarming, focus on what is probable and important. So what's important?  You're alive now. What probable? You won't be in 50 years. You just have a relatively short amount of time to enjoy life and to make a difference. Don't get distracted from that.

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