No Love for Cassandra

>> Wednesday, April 8, 2009

I heard an interesting story on CNN while waiting at dentist. (Note to self, one shouldn't have to go the dentist the same day you're flying out of town on travel.) Anyway, they were talking about a scientist in Italy who became convinced there was going to be an earthquake based on increased levels of radon gas. He told people to evacuate; the politicians ignored him. He went around with his "Get out NOW" message blaring from his car and they kicked him out.

And the quake happened.

The reporter's message: always listen to scientists.

*Sigh* Good message, wrong reason. Scientists can make mistakes like anyone else (including in being too cautious and not cautious enough); our strength is that we usually look at diverse data to second guess ourselves and we try to get concurrence with other scientists as a sanity check. And, all good scientists are after the truth (I've written about "bad scientists" before, so I'll leave that off here).

So, the politicians were right to be skeptical of his theory. But they were still wrong.

Because, sometimes, you know. And you don't have to be a scientist to sometimes just know. It can be canceling a flight at the last minute because you had a bad feeling about it. It can be talking to a suspect and knowing he's the one. It can be gardening outside and knowing the baby's crying. It can be listening to a sales pitch or a news story or a priest or a contractor and knowing what they're saying is dead wrong.

Those of you who don't know me will probably be surprised to hear a scientist talk like this, but I know what I've learned and I know what I know. You see, I once saw a Shuttle break up for years during reentry, in dreams, and saw it on my TV screen.

I listen now when I know.

If I hear that Cassandra voice blaring from the car in desperation, I'll be listening, there too. I've been that guy.

P.S. I'll be returning to my regular weekly features next week.


  • JD at I Do Things

    It takes a great scientist to know when to listen to that voice. Sometimes even when all the facts are in place, it's just not right.

    Love the new digs!

  • flit

    I'm liking your template better than mine LOL

    Obviously going to have to work on mine some more :)

    Wonder if they'll listen to him next time...assuming there is a next time. Would be nice to think that perhaps they might learn from their mistakes... oh wait... politicians... *sigh*

  • Mike

    Thanks for sharing - I too remember the Shuttle tradgedy - both of them. Looking forward to your weekly feature return.

  • Boris Legradic

    Hmm, and sometimes you know... and then it turns out you were wrong. I am extremely leery of listening to these sort of inner voices - sure, it could be intuition, your subconscious putting things together, but it could also be delusion. Intuition like this falls easily prey to positive reinforcement - you only remember the times you were right, and come to trust it even if there is no reason to. The thing to do if you know something is to follow up on it - examine the feeling, examine the facts, find the explanation. That's when a hunch turns into science.

    You make a good point about that "scientist" though, nobody should have listened to him. How could they have been sure that he is no crackpot? What they should do now, of course, is give him some funding and let him try and predict the next couple of eathquakes. If he can do that consistently, then it will be time to do some disaster-planning around his method.

  • Boris Legradic

    Forgot to tick that follow-up email box.

  • Davida

    A good message about following your intuition even if it goes against scientific data.


  • Bob Johnson

    Great advice, and something I have come to expect from you, even though you're a Rocket Scientist,lol.

  • Jen

    Intuition is something for sure. I seemed to be much more intuitive as a child than I am now. I'd dream of neighbors dying only to learn about it the next morning, dreamed of my brother getting bitten by our hamster to have him wake me up with blood running down his hand. My kids do the same thing. The younger one more frequently than the older one and I rarely do it anymore. I don't always trust my gut but often wish I had.

  • shakespeare

    Totally agree. I go with my gut even when I seem to be completely illogical. It's helped me several times.

    The painting you used... is it Bougereau? I'm a huge fan of his, but I haven't seen this particular one. I love his Cupid and Psyche, but my favorite is Girl with a Book.

  • Stephanie B

    Boris, I do give credence to intuition and give it validity. I know many scientists think its readily explained by psychology. I have no doubt there are times that's true; however, just because I can't explain something scientifically, I don't assume it's nonsense.

    For me, intuition/instinct fits for that. Some people have excellent instincts, in my opinion. Others, seem to have the opposite. Unfortunately, most people don't appreciate which category they fall in :)

    However, I also think, whether it's psychic, magic or an ability to analyze things so well on the subconscious level that it feels like magic, that one's gut reaction is often the right one, while noting a gut reaction can also be what someone wants to be true despite the evidence. See people's reactions to evidence of global climate change and other bad news.

    I also don't favor gut reactions over hard data. If my gut says it's safe and data says it's not, I go with the data. But, when there's a dearth of data, your gut might very well be what saves you. I have respect for that.

    Technically, you could make an argument for the guy in Italy not being right, but he was. Maybe it was a fluke. Maybe everything just felt into place and he KNEW.

    It sucks to KNOW when no one else sees it. I'm personally glad that many people give intuition and insight credence. The world will really lose something, in my opinion, when magic is discounted out of hand. I'm pleased so many of you aren't closed to the idea of intuition, even though I understand Boris' reservations. But, in my family, we believe.

    Shakespeare, it's Ajax and Cassandra by Solomon Joseph Solomon, 1886.

  • Boris Legradic

    Oh, I don't discount intuition or "gut-feelings" if you will at all. There was even a paper a year back or so where they showed that our subconscious is much better at integrating big amounts of data ...


    or not. I just searched for the paper (A theory of unconscious thought, A Dijksterhuis, LF Nordgren - Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2006 - Blackwell Publishing), and found out that the findings, i.e. that the subconsious is better at making snap decisions was disputed in a 2008 paper, here is an article in the Herald about it. (Link to the paper: pdf) Seems while the subconscious may be better at integrating vast amounts of data, it is also much more prone to making errors - probably because it evolved to deal with sabre-toothed tigers, and not to decide which plane to take (this is my own interpretation, not the one of the paper).

    My conclusion? If you don't have the time/access to more data then go with your gut-feeling. If you don't, don't.

  • Stephanie B


    Here's my gut reaction: brains and instinct are useless without a modicum of judgement.

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