Making sense of natural disasters

Earthquakes, fires, volcanoes and hurricanes really mess with our minds, whether they happen to someone else or to us.  Poor Pat Robertson, whose mind is always struggling uphill on very lean rations of fact (Napoleon III?) and is anyway a pretty low-displacement reasoning engine, further beset by having to lug an enormous cargo of bile and spite, jumped the shark hilariously with his Manichean heresy about Haiti (what is it with these guys’ grade-school fairy-tale theology, anyway?). But like the inarticulate, uninformed, enraged outbursts from the tea-party brownshirts in the back row, as David Waters implies in the story I linked to, this kind of thing is not unimportant and not uninformative.

The first thing it highlights is our need to believe we are basically OK, though maybe we slip up now and then; the second is a similar desperate hope that God is on our side. It’s pretty clear who “we” is for Robertson, and the early 19th century history of Haiti was, if you look at it a certain way, an ungrateful rejection by Africans of the infinite goodness offered to them by the European slavers and their Christian priests. It is true that the savagery of French administration of what was once the Pearl of the Antilles was especially over-the-top even by New World sugar, tobacco, mining and cotton standards, and the Haitians picked up plenty of that. The fact of blacks running their own country was such an affront to the way things were supposed to be that the US refused to recognize the second-oldest republic in its hemisphere until after Secession, and even the new independent Latin-American countries excluded Haiti from their councils. Haitians have made plenty of their own misery over two centuries, much of it rooted in internal racism between a mixed-race minority elite and a mostly-African population, but their European-led neighbors haven’t extended much help – or worse.

There’s also the difficulty a simple-minded theology has with the Job problem: why do bad things happen?  Well, they happened to Job because God had a bar bet to settle with Satan, but they can only happen to thousands of people now if they deserve it, so Pat is happy to poke around in the little history he knows and explain why Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina and this earthquake and Haiti’s whole miserable history actually make sense (and now would be a good time to send a check to the 700 Club if you live in one of those places in which God likes to send disasters upon Sodomites or whatever you have in your suspect neighborhoods).

When I feel slimed by sharing a planet with the likes of Robertson, I like to have recourse to a really humane, smart, decent person who actually knows something, and Randy hits the spot so many times.  Not to mention that he even offers some caution about enjoying stuff like this post.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

13 thoughts on “Making sense of natural disasters”

  1. Let's not be too hasty — and I don't mean that sarcastically, by the way — in thinking about what Robertson's remark really implies. He is saying that The Devil and NOT God was on the side of freedom for the slaves in the Americas.

    This has to be the end for Pat Robertson, and by that, I mean that he needs to be forced out of public life using every legal means necessary. No apology is acceptable, and anyone who accepts an apology from Robertson needs to be made persona non grata as well.

  2. Didn't Jesus beat the money changers out of the temple? How did that one get back in? Praise the Lord, SEND MONEY!

  3. One of the nice things about being an atheist, is knowing that natural disasters don't HAVE to make sense. It's quite understandable, OTOH, that somebody who believes in an omnipotent grandpa in the sky would be searching for justifications when granddad lets something nasty happen.

  4. That Robertson can buy his way onto the airwaves is one thing; it's the fact that he's actually on occasion been invited as a guest or commentator in other venues that I have never been able to understand.

  5. Haiti — Population – Density: 335/km2

    According to

    It was estimated by the Dominican government that the population density in 2007 was 192 per km² …

    Same island.

    In Haiti, complete deforestation, massive erosion, ecological collapse, grinding poverty, starvation.

    In the Domnican Republic, preserved forested highlands, functioning ecology, working economy.

    We do not live apart from nature.

    Climate change is going to be an absolute bitch.

  6. The very helpful comments at Ta-Nehisi Coates blog at least helped me figure out what Robertson was talking about. I'd say he's almost certainly talking about the Bois Caiman ceremony, which is apparently a pretty important Haitian legend. (Legend not in the sense that it isn't true, but in the sense that the Long March is a Chinese legend, or crossing the Delaware an American legend.)

    Note that that may leave his statement insane, but it does mean it isn't anti-anti-slavery per se.

  7. The prayer at the Bois Caiman ceremony was interesting. He prays to the god who created the earth (hmm, sounds like the same guy the French claim to worship), but he says the whites must worship some other god because he seems to be telling them to do awful things. Kind of like Ghandi's statement "I like your Christ, but I don't like your Christians. They aren't very Christ-like."

  8. Hey! Maybe Robertson is just trying to be considerate of Chris Hitchens, who may be extra busy this week with only a short amount of time to meet his deadline, and needs something quick to rant about. Ever think of that?

  9. Talk about ingratitude! If it hadn't been for the Haitian revolt, Napoleon (the First, of course) wouldn't have wanted to sell us a quarter of a continent, cheap.

  10. Brett, that's how I feel. But something I've been thinking about since these comments is how they might fit into our other social narratives about "terrible things", especially as Pat Robertson is a conservative and how his perspective draws upon a broader trend in conservative thinking.

    One critique of religion is that it arises from a human need for creating meaning out of the unknown. Thus you had early humans basically creating stories for phenomena that they had no system of knowledge to rationally comprehend. By creating reason where there was none, these stories would have been emotionally satisfying.

    In the modern world, science has provided a rational structure for natural disasters. We have come to believe in a generally rational world, dependent on natural, not supernatural laws. So mudslides, earthquakes, volcanoes and other natural disasters are the effect of geological forces. There is no need to appeal to any God for a rational explanation of events.

    Although in human affairs, the need for rational clarity still seems to be found wanting. People still wonder why men do such terrible things. Even as science has been able to pinpoint neural mechanisms that are responsible for much of brain function and behavior, we still seem wary to apply the same sort of mechanistic understanding to human action as we do to the rest of the world. When a tidal wave strikes an island, or a mountain lion attacks, we do not call them "evil". Yet this somewhat magical word is invoked frequently whenever an action is committed which we find ourselves asking "how could someone do such a thing?!"

    In truth, we have no where near the theoretical sophistication in our conceptual framework of the mind that we do of natural events. So it is understandable that we still appeal to metaphysics for a rational explanation. But how rational is the term "evil"? There is a certain logic to explaining a flood by describing the anger of the Gods. Angry people do mean things. Yet to the modern mind this explanation is preposterous, in that, aside from the fact that it ignores material laws of nature, it assumes the possibility that there are magical creatures in the heavens with powers over the natural world. To the extent that we do not know precisely all the mechanism at work behind a flood – the exact way clouds form, or maybe the saturation of certain rock layers, the function of gravity, etc., we certainly know enough to be reasonably satisfied that a scientific explanation is sufficient. And when such events have devastating consequences, it this rational understanding that gives us comfort. Where in the past comfort was had in the form of appeals to magical stories for rational satisfaction, we now take comfort in the rationality of scientific laws. The story may be different, but the emotional effect is the same.

    And now let's return to Pat Robertson. I would argue that his quest for a religious narrative is hindering his ability to to find solace. If a tree fell in a rainstorm and crushed your house, you would certainly be upset, but because of your modern rational understanding of science, you are able to take comfort in knowing that the world operates according to certain laws. And you just happened to be unlucky. You would experience loss, yet it would likely not occur to you to become angry and resentful of the tree that fell (it was not, of course, the tree, it was the wind, which came from the storm, which came from the heat and the cold and the water, etc.).

    Yet if your house was burned down by a man with a can of gasoline, you would experience not only loss but profound anger toward the man who did it. You would likely want revenge – at least in form of justice, to see the man locked up in prison. Who would do such a thing?! There would be no clear chain of causality. You would be filled with unresolved questions – and then the sense of hopelessness at your inability to find answers. There is a good chance that asking the arsonist himself may not provide relief – as he may not even know (how many of us truly know why we do what we do?

    A more simplistic illustration of this difference in emotional response is well illustrated by the sensation one has had in accidentally stubbing a toe on a piece of furniture. The anger and pain one immediately feels is only matched by the sense embarrassment after taking "revenge" on the thoughtless table leg by kicking it. The human mind can be truly idiotic.

    Pat Robertson, instead of chalking up the tragedy of the Haitian earthquake to the rationality of perfectly knowable geological forces, is rationally compelled by his own fundamentalist Christian narrative to invoke the magical powers of the devil to explain the events. One must wonder whether he is introducing an added level of personal anguish. Remember, in the context of his comments, he was highlighting the historical nature of Haitian poverty – something much less explainable than fault-line earthquakes. While there are certainly many broadly agreed-upon narratives as to why Haiti has suffered such tremendous poverty, the specifics begin to become less clear as you delve in the the assorted political perspectives. At the most basic level, there will have been individuals who through their actions were responsible for events leading to the present economic conditions. There is a lot of human failure at work. And attached to this human failure is a sense of incomprehension. By invoking the devil, Robertson was seeking a rational answer not only to the earthquake, but also to Haiti's troubled past.

    A principle belief of conservatism is in the free will of man, and therefore a high tolerance for both social inequality and retributive justice. If man is perfectly free to make his own choices, then he should suffer the consequences of his actions. Yet implicit in this philosophical assumption is the problem of causality. If man is perfectly free to act, then discovering why he does what he does becomes impossible: causality ends at his moment of action. Whereas in nature you can follow a clear line backwards through the infinite chain of causal connections, man is thought of as somehow arriving at his actions a blank slate. If man is successful it is because he and he alone achieved it. Social inequality is a simple matter of action versus inaction. If man does wrong it is because he and he alone did it. Retribution is a simple matter of following through on deterrence.

    Yet because this philosophical narrative is implicitly uncertain, if man is "free" to act and thus the originator of causality, why he did what he did is unknowable – except through asking him, by nature an unreliable witness. Thus we have born the concept of "evil". What better way to define the difference between why a man does ill and why a tree does ill? The man is the magical originator of action, while the tree is simply the last domino to fall. And so while we can stand before the ruins of our tree-crushed house and feel no anger towards it, we feel compelled to lash out at the criminal.

    Our level of emotional pain is in direct correlation to the uncertainty of causal clarity. And yet the philosophical assumption of free agency, a core assumption of conservatism, has this capacity for emotional anguish built in. As a liberal, while I may feel the impulse to react violently toward one who has done me wrong, I know that there – somewhere – is a perfectly good reason for why they did what they did. In a biological and cultural sense, they are no different than a tree in a rainstorm.

    Maybe I am fooling myself. Maybe "evil" does exist, perhaps in some intra-dimensional plane accessible only to the powers of human cognition. But then again – would that not imply some manifestation of causality? Alas, scientific materialism is a tautological construct, in that truth must be truth. In the meantime I'm always thankful when I am able to console myself with the reminder, in the worst of times, that there is indeed a "reason for everything". A scientific one, mind you, and one that includes my fellow man.

  11. I am reminded of a cartoon I have clipped and stored somewhere of a couple of 'primitive' folks (you know the ones – grass skirts, bones in nose) watching as a volcano erupts and saying "I'm sure there is a perfectly simple religious explanation for this".

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