Predicting the Unpredictable

By Lenore Skenazy

October 25, 2012 5 min read

Abductions and earthquakes, what do they have in common besides the horror they create?

They are both, to a greater or lesser extent, random. And randomness — call it "fate" — is something we humans have a very hard time accepting. To see how hard, let's look at a recent verdict in Italy and a recent murder here in America.

The verdict has to do with a deadly earthquake in the Italian town of L'Aquila in 2009. Before the quake, there were some tremors. Scientists were asked whether they thought these indicated an earthquake was imminent, and they said they weren't sure; things could be fine, and science does not possess the power to predict the unpredictable.

Less than a week later, an earthquake decimated the town, and 309 people died — at which point the scientists' earlier lack of a definitive "get out this instant!" landed them in court. Their yearlong trial ended this past week. All six were found guilty of "multiple manslaughter." They were sentenced to six years in prison (each) and fined $12 million to cover the court costs and pay the victims. Said one of the convicted, "This is medieval."

But actually, it's very modern.

To see how modern, take a look at this letter I got about the Jessica Ridgeway case in Colorado. Jessica was walking to school earlier this month, when she was abducted and killed. That morning, the school had called her mom to say she was absent, but the mom, who works nights, was asleep with her phone in another room, so she didn't hear it. This letter, from a mom named Amber, was sent to my "Free-Range Kids" blog:

"As a mom, especially a single working mom, I have my cell phone always left on and near me ... in case ... the school or my kids ever need me during the day. ... I know a lot of other parents who do the same thing and for me at least, it is a pretty standard and common sense practice. ... I'm sorry I'm going to say it ... but LAZINESS, SELFISHNESS, and (irresponsible) actions (were taken) by the mother in this case. ... I just feel this mother took her (daughter's) ... safety for granted."

Amber concludes that no one ever should let his or her kids walk unescorted to school, because the child could die. It sounds as if, if it were up to her, she would convict the mom of manslaughter for not predicting and preventing the unpredictable — that out of the blue, her daughter would be abducted.

This kind of angry blame — by courts and by society — is the end of rationality as we know it. If scientists worry that anytime they miss a prediction they could end up in jail, they'll either shut up entirely (already, the head of the Italian commission on seismic risk has resigned, as has his deputy) or issue alarms even when the likelihood of danger is tiny, recalibrating their instincts from rational to hysterical. Wolf! Wolf! Wolf!

Likewise, when we have a culture that blames parents for not treating every walk to school like a trip through a firing squad, we recalibrate society, too. And instead of accepting the small amount of risk that comes with just plain living, we demand excess precaution all the time. If you're not proceeding as if your child is in constant danger, society chides, you're doing something wrong. This explains the helicopter parenting movement.

It is really hard to accept the fact that bad things happen, sometimes out of the blue. But to tell ourselves we could avoid them all if only we were better-prepared is worse than wishful thinking and even medieval thinking.

It isn't thinking. It's just rank fear.

Lenore Skenazy is the author of "Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)" and "Who's the Blonde That Married What's-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can't Remember Right Now." To find out more about Lenore Skenazy (lskenazy@yahoo.com) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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