Unheeded Warnings – Some Conclusions

The “unheeded warnings” blog contains ten posts on people being disastrously wrong. When this happens in medicine, patients can die, or come close to death. When it comes to not protecting installations from an enemy, or not even realizing your enemy will attack, or not even knowing you have an enemy, then in the worst case, many thousands of people can die.

Its amazing what people will not believe. One American soldier, mentioned in one of the posts, told his parents about the atrocities he saw in WWII, and his parents told him he didn’t know what he was talking about.

I try to present some interesting cases, usually where there were warnings and the warnings were ignored. If you look at the ‘categories’ on the right side of the blog, you can choose which categories you are interested in, or you can just browse through the posts.

This was my summary post in 2012, and I expected not to add any more posts after that, though I did break down and add one or two. But at the time, I asked if there any general conclusions that can be drawn from the cases I mentioned, which ranged from the surprise attack by Germany on Russia in World War II, to the case of a sufferer from an auto-immune disease who was persistently mis-diagnosed, or to Americans who persisted in not believing in the Holocaust while it was happening, or to Jews in the path of the Holocaust who could not believe it either.

One lesson I think is that subjective experience can be all you have to rely on, in some situations. One example of this is when a person staggered back to his Jewish village in Eastern Europe, and told them of his vivid experience of a Nazi massacre. He had no proof of any kind, but should have been believed (he wasn’t). Perhaps it was just too big a leap for the villagers to believe that a civilized nation (Germany) now wanted them all dead, and perhaps if they had known more about human nature, they would have been more afraid. So on the one hand, they had to weigh the “subjective experience” of one person, and on the other they had to revise a lot of assumptions about human nature and ideology. So they chose to reject the subjective experience and not revise any assumptions.

Its interesting to ask what the difference is between subjective and objective experience? You might say that a witness who accuses a drug kingpin in a court of law is presenting only subjective evidence, but if he has a wiretap, he has objective evidence. But on the other hand if you were a juror in that court, and then suddenly found yourself on a desert island, far away from humanity, and far away from hope of rescue, would you have that objective evidence? It would seem that all the evidence you would have of the court is your memories, and memories are subjective. You remember the witnesses, you remember the wiretap being played, but still, it’s all in your brain.

I think that the answer to the subjective/objective question from your mind’s viewpoint is that the objective is subjective, but it just has more reinforcing subjectivity to it. There are many experiences that hang together and make sense together, and so we trust ‘objective’ experience as corresponding to something real out there. For instance, if you were stranded on that desert island, and thought of your aunt Abigail, you would be very certain she existed, even though you have zero proof, in writing, or on video, or by witnesses, available on that island. The reason you would be so sure is that there are so many pieces of different types of evidence in your mind, – the time Abigail took you to the mall, the time your mother talked about Abigail’s winning the “prettiest girl on the block” award, the time you phoned Abigail for a ticket from her travel agency, the time Abigail was stranded at your house during a snow storm, the family tree your father made that had Abigail in it, etc. etc. etc. All this, may be subjective memory. But it is such a interlocking and reinforcing net of memories, that you are very, very sure Abigail is real.

There are other situations that I have not posted to this blog, but have read about that show another principle. People simply cannot believe they are in a big and important and crucial situation. This has been offered as part of the explanation for the lack of preparation by the U.S. in the attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by the Japanese that brought America into World War 2.
It also happens sometimes to the police, especially when a crime is based on the testimony of one person. For instance, the police also didn’t realize a boy testifying that his mother drugged him to the point of unconsciousness for long periods to keep him out of school was telling them the truth. They believed the articulate mother instead. (Her motive for keeping the child out of school was to collect a type of welfare payment).

One reason scenarios may be considered improbable is because they involve believing many things based on scanty evidence. The more of a chain of events you have to believe to make sense of an experience (or a scientific finding), the more improbable a scenario seems. And yet, life does have entire causally related chains of events, that we may not be aware of until a surprising result emerges. In fact, the surprising result can hit us really hard, like the Hungarian Jews (see post) in the concentration camp that had plenty of time to contemplate why they were so wrong in ignoring the warnings that they had been given. If they had the entire causal chain of events in front of them, which explain how Germans became genocidal in the period of 20 years, they would have run for the hills. But all they finally had was the barbed wire around them and the brutality and the crematoria, and from that, presumably they could try and deduce everything else, until they were killed.

When you have a set of assumptions about the world, and facts come in that are inconvenient, you can revise your assumptions, or you can revise the ‘facts’. This is a problem with human perception in general, even on a very low level. Does the perception that is coming in mean that you need to create a new category, or revise an old one that is wrong, or is it just to be ignored?

Apart from this blog, you may also be interested in Engineer William Beaty’s website which includes a large section on ‘close-minded’ views that turned out to be wrong in the history of science. I have some disagreements with the site, for instance, he considers the paranormal as possible, and I do not, but much of the site has nothing to do with that topic. His site is at http://www.amasci.com/. This blog, by contrast is more focussed on history and medicine.

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