Amanda Ripley

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Why We Love Disaster Prophets

15th Apr 2009 posted in Disaster Behavior

I’ve been thinking about why it is we are so obsessed with predicting disasters—over and above preventing them. What is so magical about a forecast? The answer may have something to do with the way the brain is wired. The brain loathes uncertainty. It’s a survival skill, except when it isn’t. We like patterns, which helps explain why we like music and storytelling. But we fear things we can’t predict. So we read horoscopes or watch CNBC—or sell all of our stocks when the market is low—just to stop the itch of the unknown.

In 1990, a scientist named Dr. Iben Browning predicted that the Missouri
town of New Madrid had a 50-50 chance of having a major quake on or around
Dec. 3. As the date approached, The Commercial Appeal began running a daily
“Quake Watch” series. Reporters camped out in the tiny town. Schools closed and supermarkets ran out of candles. The date arrived and nothing happened.
Browning died, his reputation in tatters, the next year.

It’s time to resist the seduction of the prediction, just as we resist our
brain’s other bad ideas. It distracts us from the real work we need to do.
Disasters happen every year, more or less on time. The true test of a
civilization is whether we take every reasonable precaution ahead of time.
As the futurist Joel Barker once said, “The ultimate function of prophecy
is not to tell the future, but to make it.”