Human Error and Why Shit Happens: Part 2

PompeiiPompeii People

Everest Dead

The Shining

“Shit happens” is a common colloquial expression that many people intuitively understand and can relate to. However, far fewer people go on to inquire, “well, why did that particular shit happen?” Bear with me on this question because I suspect this will not be real easy to explain. To some extent, bad shit like major disasters, catastrophes, and fatal accidents continue to remain shrouded in mystery and myth for many people. Especially in the past (but sometimes even today) God, superstition, rumor and outright confabulation somehow become part and parcel of the disaster narrative and end up confusing the scientific analysis and rational explanations.  In other words, what we think we know is usually not completely true and we often continue to assume its truth/veracity based on ignorance, cognitive rigidity and consensual agreement with other misinformed souls.

For example, I happened to recently watch a documentary about Pompeii on TV and realized for the very first time that the perfectly preserved remains of the townspeople caught in the violent volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius were actually (for the most part) not “bodies” or complete skeletal remains but reinforced casts (like a plaster mold) made by a certain individual in the late 1800s. So much for my childhood fascination with 2000 year old dead Romans buried alive in volcanic ash and frozen in their contorted death agony for all eternity… Somewhat related is the longstanding and relatively common assumption that when REALLY BAD SHIT happens like a biblical flood or giant plague of locusts, etc., it likely involves supernatural causes that are basically inconceivable and unknowable. To “know” or understand such cosmic or divine proportion events is usually reduced to believing what the BIG BOOK (or Pat Robertson) tells us…otherwise we too might get turned into a pillar of salt. While such interpretations of why shit happens often fall under the basket category of, “God did it so dont ask for a repeat performance” they also may inspire a kind of scientific laziness, learned helplessness and general surrender to the “mysteries of the universe”.

 Second, it is a fact that when shit happens it often involves complex reasons and multiple interacting variables that are difficult to assess. Large airplanes are known to disappear off radar screens never to be seen or heard again….right? Nevertheless, human beings very often need and want simple answers in their pursuit of what they erroneously perceive as “closure”. Let’s face it. Hitler alone did not cause (or carry out) the Holocaust. As a result, those desperately in need of answers are sometimes willing to entertain highly unusual or unlikely simplistic explanations… like UFO’s, the Bermuda Triangle, and various other creative or nefarious conspiracy theories.  I call this the “Alien Meets Big Foot Syndrome”. It’s more difficult to acknowledge that many answers to unexplained or catastrophic events are not easily obtained due to the difficulty and expense involved. Identifying reasonable primary determining factors and teasing out spurious or confusing interaction effects, hidden or confounding secondary variables is arduous and challenging at best. The additional presence of changing/dynamic conditions that alter statistical equations, prediction models or forecasts make scientific investigation even more difficult to conduct, calculate and control. That’s one reason why pharmaceutical companies can get away with a lot of their rather weak clinical data “proving” their drugs effectiveness even tho the placebo effect is often almost as good. Things tend to change and replication studies are rare.

Recently, I was able to come to a better personal understanding of this “why shit happens” topic after watching the movie “Everest” on cable television and then reading a journal article about this same event.  Somehow it helped me (both practically and metaphorically) to first view a dramatic recreation of this literal shit storm involving two professional climbing expeditions that met disaster on Mt Everest in May of 1996. Through watching the dramatic story along with the unfolding sequence of related events I was better able to grasp the unique context involved as well as the interplay of multiple determining factors, both human and otherwise. In any catastrophe or major disaster, whether it is the sinking of the Titanic, the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion, or the more recent mass shooting of innocents in a gay nightclub in Orlando there is an unseen “flamenco dance” of contributing factors, mathematical probabilities, dumb luck (or lack of) and Final Destination-like fate/destiny playing out in real time and space. In other words there apparently is such a thing as being in a really bad place at the very wrong time. Such a high stakes poker game, vibrating quantum wave and probabilistic “roll of the dice” (for or against life, death, and survival) is not unlike that which Albert Einstein referred to in his famous (but often totally misinterpreted) quote, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe…” Einstein might have fallen a bit short on the quantum mechanics and spiritual aspects involved in why good and bad things happen but at least he got gravity right. However, messing up with gravity and the need to maintain stability at high altitude/steep descent circumstances can get yourself killed …as was shown on Mt. Everest and more recently demonstrated in the “freak” water slide accident in Kansas City.

The journal article I read (see below) about the Mt. Everest disaster, while somewhat dry and wholly lacking in the aforementioned cinematic suspense, was really the best available scientific analysis of why and how “shit happens” in certain high risk situations. I’ve always been obsessed with survival and “fate” and tried to look at such complex issues from multiple perspectives using various human lenses that include wearing my spiritual and gut intuition glasses as well as my rational and scientific spectacles.Of course it’s important to not get ones viewpoint mixed up.  As an example, my ex-wife Rona’s fateful dream several months before she died from Stage4 lung cancer (the one about a wild cat that approached her and needing to make it to “Gate 30” at the airport on time) represented a prophetic and symbolic story line and one that lent itself better to a personal and/or spiritual rather than scientific interpretation. Still, as dreams go it was pretty amazing….

As stated, “shit happens” in life not just for a single reason but for a host of interrelated reasons and explanatory factors. What we call “good luck” or “bad luck” is often just the compounding of many positive and/or negative factors that people are either previously unaware of, somewhat aware of, or completely blind, deaf, and dumb towards. It’s not just that human beings (unlike computers) cant compute or fathom the multivariate nature of complex mathematical probability models, predictive analytics or practical risk factors. It’s also that computers are lousy at utilizing spiritual or intuitive information and tend to filter out what is perceived to be “extraneous” or superfluous data. God (the Universe) on the other hand is apparently capable of factoring in everything and nothing is seen as total garbage. Our limited human minds and egos, somewhat like computers, also have built-in filtering mechanisms (like psychological defense mechanisms, cognitive schemas, fuzzy logic, self-serving report biases and errors in judgement and attribution). Because we are human beings with strong emotional processing systems (rather than purely objective computer systems based on binary coding) there is a general tendency to “drift” toward non-objective thinking, again often in service to our fundamentally hard-wired emotional needs, fantasies, wishes, etc.  That’s probably at least one aspect that Sigmund Freud got right abut human learning and behavior (clearly NOT counting the whole penis envy/castration complex thing) . 

It’s worth mentioning that it’s probably true that many people live their lives too often in a kind of sub-clinical “flight or fight” mode and somewhat understandably cant seem to stay sufficiently balanced between the need/requirement to initiate change, move, adapt, and take calculated risks with the simultaneous need to stay safe, hunker down, and remain cautious. Essentially we either under or overreact as a result of anxiety and perceived risk (overcorrect) or we fall asleep at the wheel and fail to take adequate precaution, so to speak. On top of all this, as mentioned, the many variables that determine and explain bad accidents and disasters are a moving target of predictable and seemingly unpredictable factors like fast moving ice storms on Mt. Everest or in the case of the kind of “weird news” I report on in my web blog, some totally wacked out crazy person randomly deciding to slit a strangers throat in a grocery store for no apparent reason ( I know, “WTF?”). Talk about bad luck. Either way, such unforeseen events would throw off the careful, all-inclusive multivariate regression and subconscious risk factor analysis going on in our head that is normally programmed towards insuring personal survival. You just dont expect some nut job to kill you while you are testing the avocados for ripeness in the produce aisle.

In the end, more often than not (as amply demonstrated in one of my favorite TV shows “Air Disasters”……(FYI: NOT a great program to watch right before flying somewhere on vacation) it is usually human (pilot) error, mental/emotional factors or excessive stress/fatigue that triggers the subsequent “cascade” of faulty decisions and even mechanical failures that directly lead to bad shit happening like airplane crashes or freezing to death on Mt. Everest. My guess is that Stephen Hawking’s recently publicized  “down grade” of humanity’s probable chance for long term survival as a species is at least partially based on his realistic calculation of human error related global extinction events occurring sometime in the near future like climate change, Trump being elected as POTUS or ISIS getting their fanatical hands on tactical nuclear weapons. Black holes arent the only things in spacetime that contain within their basic structure a certain end point that represents the statistical point of no return or “event horizon” as far as survival is concerned.

Bottomline: “Survival” is an interesting “board game” and something we all “play” on a daily basis whether we realize it or not.  In an earlier web blog I wrote about my near obsession as a small boy playing with plastic army men. I didnt just play “War” in my backyard or basement like I imagine most kids do or did (altho i really liked blowing stuff up and lighting them on fire) but I would set up “fateful” life or death situations and scenarios with blocks, Lincoln logs, etc. I would carefully place all these little plastic warriors in the various structures and then bomb the living shit out of them with heavy objects. That’s right. I was the Angel of Death, Mt. Vesuvius, Godzilla, the Luftwaffe, Gorgo, the Enola Gay Hiroshima bomber, Robert Oppenheimer, Hurricane Inez, Dr. Mengele, and the deadly Passover Plagues all combined.  It sounds morbid, maybe even somewhat disturbed, but I just wanted to see who survived, who didn’t and why.  It certainly wasn’t that I wanted to really kill people or someday become an insurance claims adjuster, corporate risk manager or crash-test scientist or dummy.  I just wanted to see how placement, preparation, dumb luck, happenstance, probability and various other factors interacted to determine survival and continued life rather than death.  Death, I realized even then, was a somewhat unfathomable mystery but survival seemed to be more of a probabilistic enterprise that could be analyzed and understood. Being a big hypochondriac, I should also admit, I even noted and evaluated the little plastic army guys (or Cowboys and Indians or whatever) who were merely “wounded” by virtue of their semi-prone yet still semi-standing positions after my incessant air attacks and ruthless bombing runs. Even as I type this I am watching a military history program on TV about a certain Canadian fighter pilot who for very identifiable reasons became a distinguished flying “ace” in WWII by shooting down over 30 Nazi planes over Malta and surviving it all…only to die a mere three years later in a freak unexplained midair explosion. Apparently in his post-war boredom and brief retirement from military aviation he signed on to help deliver an airplane to Israel during its War of Independence. In my mind such ironic events deserve a formal military salute with an associated rolling of the eyes, shaking of the head and ponderous gaze toward the heavens above while thinking aloud to myself, “Seriously? God, You gotta be fucking kidding me?!!”…/Lessons_from_Everest.pdf

About captaincliff

Psychologist by day, insomniac Pirate blogger by night, this Child of God likes to share sarcastic social commentary as well as topsy-turvy observations about life, love and the pursuit of zaniness, a functional form of insanity in an increasingly insane world
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