Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Science of Risk



Part of what I do is being able to work in the absence of absolute certainty. Perhaps it's easier to "think outside the box", when the there is nothing left of the box but trace bone and blood, shattered lives to be pieced together in late hours. It's why I've turned down promotions that would take me to headquarters or academia. I love the field work. Part of what fascinates me about it is the cross disciplinary commonalities in the field of studies, and always the application of science to the legal process. So I tend to look through the entire world through those eyes.

So it was when work took me to Hawaii for a few days. Brigid Jr, was adopted into a Hawaiian family so I feel closer to her when I'm there. As it was a business trip, I was only able to play tourist for a couple of hours, boarding a bus from hotel to the beach with some Japanese tourists.

I read somewhere that the Japanese view Westerners as stone, but regarded the Asian countenance as water, a generalization that does justice to neither. Liquid water carves the stones that guide the streams, and in glacial form carve deep valleys that lead to the sea. The pond sits calmly still as the stone and landslides crash like a waterfall.
What is the difference between ice and stone? They both sit solid and still, melt when intense heat is applied. Both are powerful, and both can be destroyed in a moment of careless nature. Time and tide waiting for no one.

Who and what we are is simply who and what we are. When I observed myself pushing my way through their group, I vowed not to be that rigid stereotype but to become more like water for this day. I would infuse my motions with the smooth physical flow of a stream. I would place myself in the current and simply float, drifting where the day took me. I couldn't wait to refresh my travel weary skin in the ocean while boogie boarding the waves I'd seen through the window on final approach. I could see the great ranks of inviting waves curling towards me and my pulse quickened.


As my bus companions headed for the shallows, I noticed a young man with binoculars staring out into the water, watching intently. He wasn't a tourist and was carefully studying the landscape, how the water lined up, the break of the waves. I shyly approached and said "Aloha kakahiaka aku, how is it today?" He replied "Stay where the water is smooth, if you get out much further than that (and pointed) the rip current will take you there, pointing to a little huddle of rocks that stood sentry at the distant edge of the tourist swimming area. He looked at me very carefully and said quietly,"If you make it past that", pointing to even bigger rocks way off in the distance. "you will be ". . . and he paused. "Pau?" I said, not sure if I got the word right, and we both nodded.

I wondered what would have happened if I'd ignored the warnings and just jumped in, swimming past all the caution signs into those friendly looking breakers that looked like a post card. And I began to think how easy it is to die. To just disappear, with little warning or fanfare, off the face of the planet. I had gone from the airport to asking directions to the bottom of the food chain in little more than hour.

Ignore the signs and there is a price.


There is a great book called "Deep Survival", that tells a story of a rock there, a popular photo site, where the waves crash against it majestically. Tourists stop, the breakers breaking behind them showering them with drops of the sea. A man will pause to adjust a setting on his digital camera, and look up to find his lover gone, never to be seen again.

As the book so well points out, one of those things that kills us is that we don't understand the forces of nature we engage. The environment my generation grew up to expect, is one of peace and sustenance. There are many people struggling, but unlike much of the rest of the world there is food in abundance, light and heat. A domestic den of civilization. Then we go into nature and the playing field is leveled and we are tested in ways that life or TV does not prepare us for.

Most of us sleep through the test and we come out of the experience never really knowing what we did or didn't do to survive, yet somehow believing that we are hardy, knowledgeable adventurers. As pilots say "been there - done that". It's smoke and mirrors.

I watch and I'm aware, reminded regularly that several somethings are out to eat your crop, eat your pets, or eat you, simply because they are hungry. There is not a "let's all just get along" in nature, a fact that is oft lost on the urban dweller.

Most people don't think about it until its too late, when they leave their predictable environment for something new, something that cares little for their outcome. Fate is long of fang and claw, cold teeth gnashing against the soft underbelly of life. Some people may think about it once in a great while, the responsibility for their own survival something that only occasionally haunts the edge of their subconscious, thinking "Oh I could do it if I had to, no big deal".

I felt that way when I first learned to fly, gaining the foolish confidence that culls the weak out early. Testing my craft, testing my limits.There is a psychological theory developed by Gerald J.S. Wile, a professor emeritus of psychology at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, known as "Risk Homeostasis". It grew out of traffic studies but always fascinated me. It's base premise is that an individual has an ingrained target level of acceptable risk which does not change. This level varies between individuals. When the level of acceptable risk in one part of the persons life changes; there will be a corresponding rise/drop in acceptable risk elsewhere.

I've pushed the envelope, purposely and sometimes simply because I had additionally safety features in my gear that I thought would offset the increased risk. That mind set is what Dr. Wile studied. Psychologically, risk homeostasis shows that varying individual trends toward risk adjustment become displaced by the introduction of a safety feature. The concept results an inadvertent psychological neglect of natural automated adjustments to these barriers. In the most basic of terms - if you add in additional safety features, many individuals up their personal level of risk to compensate and the accident rate remains stasis.


I'm one of these people. Give me the extra gear and I would be the one climbing the sheer face of rock. But then you look at what you are doing, and you look at yourself. For me it was a day I was in a little airplane alone over the mountains. Looking down, it looked so pristine and perfect. After a wind that lasted all night and morning, the snow had packed into what skiers called "breakable crust", the kind that holds your weight so very well, then suddenly doesn't.

As I flew westward, everything around me howled of the winds fluid past, the keening power not abated as forecast, winds sluicing downward from a day that still roared. Tossed about by a mountain waves indifference, having to make that split second decision that would lead me away to safety or give way completely beneath me, I looked up towards the other seat. It was a habit pattern from seeing my instructor for so long. All I saw was a reflection in the window. Mine. It's a different way of looking at things, just as the panel you've stared at for months or years as a novice looked completely different when you were alone, how I looked at everything around me looked different as well. Every mistake, every decision, every movement, it all boiled down to the person in the glass. Nature didn't care.

That visage stared back at me as I looked into the tumbled glassiness of a tropical ocean. What's a little wave? What's a little undertow? I remembered the exhilaration of my first solo white water rafting trip. I also remember when my single-man raft flipped and I was trapped underneath the rushing water, bumping against rocks much bigger than I was. Many things could panic me - spiders, airport food, blind dates, but being upside down, under water in the cold and fading light, did not. If there was panic there, it quickly trailed on behind me in the water and I simply pushed my little raft off of me, not attempting to stand, but pointing my feet downstream and floated free. Pointing to to dancing light, to precious air, and water that calmed down to quiet pools further downstream, crickets chirping in encouragement.

Did that mean that I got back into the water that day? No. Not alone. I may have had the current or the rocks figured out that time. Next time, I might not be so lucky.

Author Jon Krakauer wrote about mountaineer guide Scott Fisher, the one who encouraged him to climb Mt. Everest. "We got the 'big E' figured out" he told him" "We've got it totally wired". Yet, on Everest, Scott Fisher died. The psychology of oblivion is not a new science, I've been studying it for years. Making someone else into a believer, coming to terms with the unfamiliar forces of nature is hard. Few think of it. Few of us believe in our own mortality until we're faced with it, and then, even then, after the threat passes, we forget. So we have no way to prepare for what seems too removed a possibility. As Christopher Burney, who was a prisoner of war at Buchenwald said "Death is a word which presents no real target to the minds eyes".

I agree, the surest way we can become a believer in mortality, short of dying, is to sit and contemplate those things.The world we reason about isn't the one that we reside in, I thought as a wave crashed down into the ultimate storm tossed dream, which to comprehend, is to share. How old is survival? It's as old as fear.

And so that day, instead of body surfing in the growing white waves, I sat, as I will here so early this morning. Sat and thought of blue as deep as death or desire, of tumbled glacial turbulence, of currents that pull you down, deeper than you ever expected to go.

Sat. Very still and quiet. Like stone.