"It Wasn't That Bad." The Infuriating Paradox of Preparedness

The weird logic of self-defeating prophecies.

"It Wasn't That Bad." The Infuriating Paradox of Preparedness
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God was going to destroy Ninevah.

He sent a guy named Jonah to warn the city. Jonah didn't want to warn Ninevah. He wanted them all to die. A lot of drama ensued, including a big fish. Jonah finally gave up and delivered the prophecy.

Nienvah repented and reformed.

They avoided doom.

You've probably heard of self-fulfilling prophecies, events that come true because the warning itself triggers them. Ninevah gives us an example of the opposite, a self-defeating prophecy.

Despite Jonah's pessimism, he still had a little faith in humanity. Even he believed that if you warned societies about their impending doom, they would pull together and do something to try and stop it.

Oh, Jonah.

Jonah, Jonah, Jonah.

In reality, there's a strange psychological hangup that often prevents societies from truly preparing for disasters.

It's called the preparedness paradox.

You don't hear the term very often, but you see it everywhere. You see it when shock jock podcast hosts go after experts and scientists, demanding to know why all the bad things they predicted haven't happened yet. You see it when the public complains about precautions.

You see it when politicians dismantle response teams and regulations while slashing funding to the agencies designed to protect us.

You've probably felt the stinging irony of the preparedness paradox, maybe for your entire life. You're the one who takes precautions to protect yourself and your family. They don't appreciate it.

They make fun of you.

They complain.

They worry about your mental health. They tell you to relax. And when bad things finally happen to them, they blame you.

It's infuriating.

There's a good recent example of the preparedness paradox in monkeypox, the pandemic that wasn't. When it started spreading, the government wasn't prepared. They dragged their feet. They missed opportunities. Meanwhile, LGBTQ communities remembered the lessons of the HIV/AIDS crisis. They didn't wait around. They organized. They took the warning extremely seriously. They essentially stopped transmission.

What happened to those of us who sounded the alarm?

We got ridiculed for "fearmongering."

But without the sense of alarm, nobody would've done what they needed to. Monkeypox would've continued to spread and mutate until it became a problem for everyone. Even with direct action, monkeypox has continued to mutate and spread. It's still a threat, just not as obvious.

We've been living an especially glaring example of preparedness paradox when it comes to the premature reopening of schools after the first year of the Covid pandemic. At first, everyone did everything they could to protect children. We jumped into action, putting classes online.

It worked.

We managed to spare children from the first wave.

Instead of thanking the experts who warned everyone, opportunists emerged to start peddling lies. The public came to believe children didn't get sick, without any explanation or evidence why. Now children are getting sicker and sicker, and the opportunists who sold these lies are twisting themselves inside out to convince everyone that it's not happening.

Your average internet troll loves to point out self-defeating doomsday prophecies from the 1960s and 1970s about climate change. They never talk about the burning lakes and acid rain that spurred the public into action. It's hard to believe, but once upon a time the public listened to warnings and took them seriously. The world did manage to delay our doom for a while by passing laws and regulations to stop corporations from dumping toxic chemicals into lakes and rivers and chopping down entire forests.

Then we got lazy.

The preparedness paradox plays a significant role in the current complacency around all the threats we're facing. Early efforts have slowed down or mitigated the doom. Instead of showing appreciation, the public comes to see those efforts as a waste of time. They stop paying attention.

When someone prepares for a disaster, or even just benefits from someone else's preparations, they perceive the event itself as less severe. They focus on their own personal experiences. If they personally don't wind up dead or injured, they underestimate the scope and scale.

They think, "It wasn't that bad."

Lately, the media has only reinforced the preparedness paradox with their constant stream of stories blaming everything from lockdowns to activists for the inconvenience they cause.

The comedian Jimmy Carr had a good response to this: "Who thinks we overreacted? The living tend to think that. If you did a survey of the dead, I bet they'd say we could've done more."

That brings us to a related point, survivorship bias.

Among the many fallacies that afflict the human brain, people have a bad habit of looking at the survivors of disasters to figure out what went wrong. They completely ignore the fatalities.

Consequently, we've got a bunch of people running around attributing their good health to their superior genes instead of examining the privileges and advantages that kept them safe. We've got a bunch of trolls blaming vaccines for the surge in chronic health problems, ignoring the millions in far worse shape or even dead because of their poor decisions.

Above all, the media promote both preparedness paradox and survivorship bias when they encourage the public to ignore the tens of millions of us still taking precautions every single day. They publish stories calling us "the last holdouts." They carefully omit how the elite have spent tens of millions of dollars outfitting their workplaces with clean air technologies.

Meanwhile, it's rare for anyone to acknowledge that without the climate activism of the 60s and 70s, we would be in far worse shape today, and many of the things trolls laugh about would've happened.

A large portion of society takes our infrastructure and support systems for granted. That's a kind of preparedness paradox in of itself. My own in-laws benefit from a hundred years of scientific advances that have prolonged their lives and kept them comfortable. They don't thank the science. They think life was always this good for everyone, when it wasn't.

They say things like, "Science will always fail you."

Society hasn't collapsed yet because millions of us are still doing everything we can to hold it together. We're still trying to protect each other. We're still going to our jobs and serving the public.

We still honor the social contract.

We get it.

We're the ones who have to remind everyone that, yes, it was that bad. It was going to be that bad. It's still getting that bad. Sometimes, we have to overstate our case a little to overcome the complacency created by these cognitive biases. We're constantly looking for ways to shake the public out of their apathy. We present the facts, then we go for the emotions.

It works.

There's no denying that.

Most people won't naturally respond to a threat until it reaches a breaking point. In the disaster discourse, that's an actual term. It describes the point when a situation spirals out of control. It becomes visibly, undeniably bad. By then, it's usually too late to do anything.

You see the preparedness paradox in full swing when minimizers get on social media and tell us not to take precautions until we reach breaking points. It's truly disturbing to see highly educated professionals demonstrate these biases on such a regular basis. That's why we have these terms.

Everyone's vulnerable to them.

The entire point of precaution is to avoid the breaking point. Ironically, if you avoid the breaking point then a large portion of people will be inclined to think the precautions were for nothing.

They say, "It wasn't that bad."

So they dismantle the protections and stop taking precautions, leaving themselves vulnerable. The preparedness paradox always worked against us. But as we enter an era of pandemics and dragon king events, it's going to cause even more harm. That's why we need to be aware of it.

We need to point it out.

These days, it's almost like people regret listening to warnings. They're disappointed when nothing happens. That's what we're fighting. There's a final irony to these kinds of biases and blind spots. The threats themselves are often not that difficult to prepare for. It's our collective attitudes that always pose the greatest obstacles to progress.

Go figure.

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