Earlier today there was a report that people in Hawaii received a warning that a missile was incoming. This turned out to be a false alarm, but for approximately twenty minutes many people believed a missile attack, possibly a nuclear one from North Korea, was imminent.
As with everything these days, the discussion online seemed to revolve around who was to blame. It appears that someone pushed the wrong button, causing anxiety and fear for many people. It could have been worse, had the wrong people panicked.
I immediately thought of Robert McNamara’s recollection of the Cuban Missile Crisis from the documentary “The Fog of War,” and the lessons he learned from that episode.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”
-W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming (1919)
In his 1997 book “Full House,” the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould discussed the idea of progress in evolution. He noted that Darwin went back and forth over the idea, at times arguing that natural selection had the power to refine organisms and “tend to progress toward perfection” and at other times writing that “after long reflection, I cannot avoid the conviction that no innate tendency to progressive development exists” (p. 137 and 141).
Gould himself acknowledged that it certainly seems like life has progressed over the billions of years it has existed on earth:
“And yet, undeniably (even for such curmudgeons as me), a basic fact of the history of life – the basic fact, one might well say – seems to cry out for progress as the central trend and defining feature of life’s history. The first fossil evidence of life, from rocks some 3.5 billion years in age, consists only of bacteria, the simplest forms that could be preserved in the geological record. Now we have oak trees, praying mantises, hippopotamuses, and people. How could anyone deny that such a history displays progress above anything else?” (p. 145)
It gives me hope when people can admit they were wrong. There’s something redeeming about admitting that one’s judgment is fallible rather than refusing to admit error for the sake of ego.
As an example, this clip from Errol Morris’ film “The Fog of War” features Robert McNamara discussing the events of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. In it, McNamara revealed that the U.S. likely misread sonar signals that supposedly indicated an increase in Vietnamese aggression. This misinterpretation helped escalate the war, causing irreparable harm to many. The key exchange:
A team of researchers, co-directed by Brown University anthropologist Catherine Lutz, released a report this summer which sought to estimate the full scale of the direct and indirect costs of ten years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The report concluded that the financial and human costs of the war have been vastly underestimated (the Executive Summary of the report can be found here).
Among the study’s findings: