Do predictions of doomsday cause more harm than good?
Predictions of apocalyptic events that mark the end of humanity, the collapse of civilization, or planetary destruction have been made since the beginning of time. When should we believe a doomsday forecast? Does the fear-driven forecast make us more prepared and improve our future?
Last week, Santa Clara County (SCC)'s director of emergency services issued a local emergency warning related to winter rain and snowstorm conditions. He sought to add SCC to the State of Emergency umbrella of 13 counties Governor Newsom was protecting with "disaster response and relief."
Anticipating an atmospheric river storm last Friday, Foothill College announced that classes would be online. Although Santa Cruz county sustained significant flooding in low-lying areas, SCC remained dry and sunny. Another atmospheric river storm was forecast, with high winds and heavy rains, this Tuesday, and President Biden approved a federal emergency declaration, which would allow FEMA to provide assistance. Foothill's President Fong announced on Tuesday morning that all campus services and classes would pivot from in-person to virtual. Personally, I awoke to rain that morning, but nothing kept me from my three-mile morning jog. Wunderground forecast 0.1 to 0.5 inches of rain, with no rain forecast past 3 P.M.
My other son, who attends a private high school, went to school this Tuesday morning expecting track practice to be canceled. He complained a bit when I loaded his bike for his ride home, knowing that his brother's school was canceled that day. By 9:30 A.M., the track coach had sent a message: "Rain lets up around 2 P.M. Practice as usual." What a contrast. Not only did he have track practice, but he biked home without event. Last Friday, he had track practice as usual, and I picked him up under sunny skies. Predictably, Stanford also cautioned its community to stay home unless they needed to be on campus.
This weather phenomenon reminds me of the bomb cyclone forecast at the start of 2023. While a bomb cyclone sounds more scary than an atmospheric river storm, apparently, it's a relatively common weather phenomenon, characterized by a 24-atm pressure drop in 24 hours. It may cause light rain followed by heavy winds. Even "fun-killing" Stanford cautioned against coming to campus on Wednesday and Thursday January 4 to 5, the dates impacted by the storm. In this case, an annual race run by Parks and Rec made the extreme decision to cancel the race scheduled three days later "due to the heavy rain and strong winds forecast this weekend," despite the Friday-Saturday forecast, predicted to be dry.
My son, whose school has canceled classes Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday due to the storm, didn't learn of the race cancelation until we arrived at the start line. Since the streets were not cordoned off for the race, he and I wondered whether we had had the wrong date or location. My first three internet searches for "Annual Fun Run 2023" didn't mention any schedule changes, but ultimately, Patch confirmed the cancelation. Despite cloudy skies, we saw no precipitation. Perhaps I missed the signs.
Remember that Neil Ferguson's COVID model predicted 2.2 million deaths in the U.S. without mitigation. I wonder if we'd be better off without the prediction. Oftentimes, the response is worse than the reality. The wise words of D.A. Henderson, who is credited with eradicating smallpox, apply: "experience has shown that communities faced with epidemics or other adverse events respond best and with the least anxiety when the normal social function of the community is least disrupted. [Otherwise] a manageable epidemic could move toward catastrophe."
Image via Good Free Photos.