Fwd: [x-risk] Gilbert: Brains tuned to respond to specific risk signals

From: Tyler Emerson (emerson@intelligence.org)
Date: Wed Jul 05 2006 - 15:27:57 MDT

Begin forwarded message:

> From: "Hughes, James J." <james.hughes@trincoll.edu>
> Date: July 5, 2006 1:16:22 PM PDT
> To: <existential@transhumanism.org>
> Subject: [x-risk] Gilbert: Brains tuned to respond to specific risk
> signals
> Reply-To: For discussion of existential risks
> <existential@transhumanism.org>
> http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/sunday/commentary/la-op-
> gilbert2jul0
> 2,0,4254536.story?coll=la-sunday-commentary
>> From the Los Angeles Times
> If only gay sex caused global warming
> Why we're more scared of gay marriage and terrorism than a much
> deadlier
> threat.
> By Daniel Gilbert
> Daniel Gilbert is a professor of psychology at Harvard University and
> the author of "Stumbling on Happiness," published in May by Knopf.
> July 2, 2006
> NO ONE seems to care about the upcoming attack on the World Trade
> Center
> site. Why? Because it won't involve villains with box cutters.
> Instead,
> it will involve melting ice sheets that swell the oceans and turn that
> particular block of lower Manhattan into an aquarium.
> The odds of this happening in the next few decades are better than the
> odds that a disgruntled Saudi will sneak onto an airplane and
> detonate a
> shoe bomb. And yet our government will spend billions of dollars this
> year to prevent global terrorism and ... well, essentially nothing to
> prevent global warming.
> Why are we less worried about the more likely disaster? Because the
> human brain evolved to respond to threats that have four features -
> features that terrorism has and that global warming lacks.
> First, global warming lacks a mustache. No, really. We are social
> mammals whose brains are highly specialized for thinking about others.
> Understanding what others are up to - what they know and want, what
> they
> are doing and planning - has been so crucial to the survival of our
> species that our brains have developed an obsession with all things
> human. We think about people and their intentions; talk about them;
> look
> for and remember them.
> That's why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of
> roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a
> quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural
> accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action
> captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn't. If
> two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York
> skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it
> happened.
> Global warming isn't trying to kill us, and that's a shame. If climate
> change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire,
> the war on warming would be this nation's top priority.
> The second reason why global warming doesn't put our brains on orange
> alert is that it doesn't violate our moral sensibilities. It doesn't
> cause our blood to boil (at least not figuratively) because it doesn't
> force us to entertain thoughts that we find indecent, impious or
> repulsive. When people feel insulted or disgusted, they generally do
> something about it, such as whacking each other over the head, or
> voting. Moral emotions are the brain's call to action.
> Although all human societies have moral rules about food and sex, none
> has a moral rule about atmospheric chemistry. And so we are outraged
> about every breach of protocol except Kyoto. Yes, global warming is
> bad,
> but it doesn't make us feel nauseated or angry or disgraced, and
> thus we
> don't feel compelled to rail against it as we do against other
> momentous
> threats to our species, such as flag burning. The fact is that if
> climate change were caused by gay sex, or by the practice of eating
> kittens, millions of protesters would be massing in the streets.
> The third reason why global warming doesn't trigger our concern is
> that
> we see it as a threat to our futures - not our afternoons. Like all
> animals, people are quick to respond to clear and present danger,
> which
> is why it takes us just a few milliseconds to duck when a wayward
> baseball comes speeding toward our eyes.
> The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that
> constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should
> right now get. That's what brains did for several hundred million
> years
> - and then, just a few million years ago, the mammalian brain
> learned a
> new trick: to predict the timing and location of dangers before they
> actually happened.
> Our ability to duck that which is not yet coming is one of the brain's
> most stunning innovations, and we wouldn't have dental floss or 401(k)
> plans without it. But this innovation is in the early stages of
> development. The application that allows us to respond to visible
> baseballs is ancient and reliable, but the add-on utility that
> allows us
> to respond to threats that loom in an unseen future is still in beta
> testing.
> We haven't quite gotten the knack of treating the future like the
> present it will soon become because we've only been practicing for
> a few
> million years. If global warming took out an eye every now and then,
> OSHA would regulate it into nonexistence.
> There is a fourth reason why we just can't seem to get worked up about
> global warming. The human brain is exquisitely sensitive to changes in
> light, sound, temperature, pressure, size, weight and just about
> everything else. But if the rate of change is slow enough, the change
> will go undetected. If the low hum of a refrigerator were to
> increase in
> pitch over the course of several weeks, the appliance could be singing
> soprano by the end of the month and no one would be the wiser.
> Because we barely notice changes that happen gradually, we accept
> gradual changes that we would reject if they happened abruptly. The
> density of Los Angeles traffic has increased dramatically in the last
> few decades, and citizens have tolerated it with only the obligatory
> grumbling. Had that change happened on a single day last summer,
> Angelenos would have shut down the city, called in the National Guard
> and lynched every politician they could get their hands on.
> Environmentalists despair that global warming is happening so fast. In
> fact, it isn't happening fast enough. If President Bush could jump
> in a
> time machine and experience a single day in 2056, he'd return to the
> present shocked and awed, prepared to do anything it took to solve the
> problem..
> The human brain is a remarkable device that was designed to rise to
> special occasions. We are the progeny of people who hunted and
> gathered,
> whose lives were brief and whose greatest threat was a man with a
> stick.
> When terrorists attack, we respond with crushing force and firm
> resolve,
> just as our ancestors would have. Global warming is a deadly threat
> precisely because it fails to trip the brain's alarm, leaving us
> soundly
> asleep in a burning bed.
> It remains to be seen whether we can learn to rise to new occasions.
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