Category Archives: Risk
To my wife’s chagrin, I love the book Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, the first-person account of the 1996 disaster on Mt. Everest. It’s gripping, terrifying, and heartbreaking, highlighting the difficulty of decision-making in lifeboats — even when those lifeboats of one’s own creation.
The movie is a faithful rendering of the tragedy, plucking away madly at the heartstrings as people freeze to death while talking to loved ones on the phone. It succeeds in telling the two most compelling stories, about Rob Hall and Beck Wethers. It modestly fails in showing the reasons for the tragedy — primarily people’s desire’s to achieve a goal overcoming their rational capacity to recognize when that goal is no longer achievable.
It is a near-great movie, better for those who have read the excellent book than for those seeing it without that benefit. Recommend for those who have read the book, wait for home rental or streaming on a nice screen for those who have not.
Side note: My 12-year old found it “boring”, except for the parts where people fell off the mountainside, which were not “dramatic enough” for him.
Side-side note: Krakauer, the author of Into Thin Air, didn’t like the movie, in which he’s a character. He has a small role in the movie, and some of the worse criticisms are reserved by the director his character.
My second favorite historical figure from the Civil War, after Abraham Lincoln, is “the fighting professor”, Major General Joshua Chamberlain. Like many, I became a fan after reading the classic Michael Shaara novel Killer Angels about the Battle of Gettysburg, in which then-Colonel Chamberlain plays a starring role as the rhetorician-turned-soldier who saves the union army on Little Round Top. Like some Nietzchean philosopher-warrior come alive, he “refuses the line” at the far end of the Union left flank, with a desperate bayonet charge down the rocky hillside, all while contemplating the meaning of it all. Straight out of central casting, what academician wouldn’t salivate at admiring this action-hero figure?
But was it too good to be true? Could a rhetoric and religion professor really become a military hero? The academic skeptic in me just couldn’t rest without separating the rhetorical chaff from the history wheat. In my typical OCD way, I started reading about Chamberlain, Gettysburg, Lincoln, and the Civil War overall in hopes of answering these and other questions. I also made the trip to Gettysburg, stood on Little Round Top – on the very large boulder from which Chamberlain anchored the “wheel” for his company’s charge down the hillside – and tried to imagine that burning hot July 2nd so many years ago. Would I have been able to measure up?
In addition to spending much time on Little Round Top in Chamberlain’s shoes, while moving about the park, I lingered at two other places that day that invited introspection. The first, not far from Little Round Top was the national cemetery where Lincoln stood to deliver his great speech. It sent chills down my spine to imagine being there that day. The second was standing in the woodline where the young Confederate soldiers in Pickett’s brigade would have stood, preparing to march across a near-mile long, open field into the teeth of the Union line, looking across the way to tiny copse of trees where the Union lines waited. How could they do it? What could possibly motivate them to make that march of death? Would I have been willing and able to do it?
These questions, and many others, led me to explore a reasonable chunk of the available Civil War literature. This includes multiple books on Gettysburg, another handful on other battles (and visits to the sites), a dozen or so Lincoln biographies, and another 10 on other significant figures. Regarding Chamberlain, I’ve read several of his own first-hand accounts of the war he provided, but I haven’t read a full biography.
But I was tingling with excitement about seeing the house he lived in, now converted to a museum about his life. What items did they have within? What new facts would I learn about his extraordinary life?
In the next post, I’ll describe the museum visit itself. As is so often the case, the truth is a little different than what I thought I knew.
My wife and I are placing significant trust in two young people we’ve never met before tonight. We’re going to dinner together and leaving our boys — ages 11, 8, and 8 — with two strangers we’ve only met on the phone. We’re even doing so in a place we’ve never been before. Hopefully, we won’t be arrested for parental negligence, like a Florida mom was for allowing her 7 year old to walk to the park.
In addition to the trust we’re placing in these two young women strangers, we’re placing a significant amount of trust in our young boys, especially our eldest son. He’s a smart 11 year old kid, with reasonable judgment, generally cautious, but with bouts of immaturity. We’ve gone through contingencies, he has a phone to contact us, and he wants to be more “grown up”. He’s done well given appropriate leeway in the past. Unfortunately, as Nicholas Nassim Taleb and others point out, successful past performance isn’t always a reliable guide to future success – a problem when large consequences are at stake. Our 8 year-old twins are rambunctious boys, one is very risk-averse and the other is risk-seeking; both are argumentative. All of this was relayed to the babysitters. They seemed perplexed that we were telling them all of this – apparently recognizing the extreme risk-aversion in the parents as more important than that of the kids.
The paradox of trust is that it involves a judgment of people in the face of insufficient evidence and lots of uncertainty. Human beings make choices, and past action in similar circumstances is no guarantee of similar future action. Even more difficult is predicting how people will behave in brand new circumstances. Trust when applied to human beings requires a judgement about character – that their virtues/values will guide their actions in a consistent, life-affirming way. But there is no guarantee. And mistakes are brutal in their consequences. And yet, the greatest rewards flow to those who take the biggest risks. As someone who studies decision making in a medical context, I’m hyper-aware of all of these issues.
I spend much of my professional life as a physician counseling people on risk. As a physician caring for older patients with cancer, I’m constantly trying to provide my best advice for patient to balance the risks of having cancer with the risks of being treated for cancer. One of my personal practice patterns is not only to tell patients and families what I think they should do, but to explain at some length WHY I suggest this. Most appreciate knowing this additional information, although some find it overwhelming and confusing.
Over time, many of my patients have come to trust my judgment, even to the point of insisting that other doctors contact me before they allow a procedure or a treatment to take place. I believe this trust comes from three sources: my willingness to explain the uncertain trade-offs they face, my constant reassurance that their quality of life is my highest goal, and my willingness to support whatever decision they ultimately make. Also, my track-record is pretty good, in telling people what to expect, which tends to inspire trust. The investment of extra time in clinic is worth the improved outcomes down the road.
I often marvel at the willingness of politicians to make definitive statements about uncertain events involving many people. Having to act on issues that affect millions, or even billions, of people in the face of such uncertainty would be virtually impossible for most people, and certainly for me. Yet we ask our presidents to do this on a nearly daily basis. Today, I read in the news that we’ve decided to use military force, in the face of rising violence by terrorists, in the form of bombs, in Iraq. Having supported our on-going troop withdrawl from that country, I’m unsure this is a good idea or not. Hopefully, it will help the beleaguered people in the north of the country being brutally killed by the terrorists. On the other hand, it might lead to escalation of violence in the country, increasing the overall violence in the area, to little effect. Even worse, it appears to be a concession that our current policies in Iraq specifically, and the Middle East general, are failing. I’m not sure whether this is a good thing to do, and I do not trust our government to choose wisely. In the face of all this uncertainty, I truly don’t understand how to feel any trust. As Ronald Reagan reminded us, when it comes to the politics of foreign policy, “Trust, but verify.”
Throughout the night, several people asked us, “What did you do with the kids? You didn’t leave them alone, did you?” We received several text messages from the kids, including pictures of them having fun at the amusement park. We had a fun, relaxing time, even seeing a celebrity from a favorite TV show, proving that Black Swan events aren’t always negative events. We returned home from our event to find that the kids had a great time — and to our surprise, so did the sitters! The kids spent many hours playing on the beach and riding rides, playing games, and eating ice cream. The sitters had many delighted stories to tell. A win all around – we were right to trust the young ladies. Professionally, my clinic continues to grow, enough that I need more time and space to see everyone we need to see. Referrals continue to pour in. Politically, unfortunately, I see no end to the problems, which continue to grow as we drop some more bombs on Iraq.