Friday, March 19, 2010

The power of feeling nothing

Samantha Power once described how US officials who actively blocked any international intervention to stop the Rwandan genocide felt zero remorse. It’s quite refreshing, then, to read that an American policeman who a little over a year ago shot and killed in self defense a pet chimp caught in murderous rage has succumbed to something like PTSD (“After Shooting Chimp, a Police Officer’s Descent”). On a different but somewhat related topic, Robert Right writes in the New York Times (“Toyotas Are Safe (Enough)”) that there is no need to panic over those self-accelerating vehicles, no need even to take your car for the free repairs offered by dealers if you potentially own one. The reason? He has calculated that driving a Toyota increases your statistical risk of being killed in a car crash by only a negligible amount. A proud owner of a Toyota SUV, he states flatly: “Ever since I read of the case of the 63-year old Harvard professor [who died with two family members in a runaway Toyota], I have felt … well, nothing in particular.” This is precisely what top Toyota management and engineers felt when recalls for their vehicles started to rise steeply a few years ago, amidst Toyota’s determined campaign to become the biggest car company in the world; and when reports about self-accelerating Toyota vehicles started to catch the attention of the media and even regulators. For them, the ability to feel nothing is a job requirement – having this capacity leaves enough real estate in their brains to tackle those complex technology-related and cost-benefit equations. What struck me about Wright, though, is that he offers opinion on “culture, politics and world affairs.” I looked him up and he is an evolutionary biologist – which entitles him to the vaguely geeky reaction he brags about. Not feeling anything also empowers him, apparently, to offer expert opinion on everything. For example, he extrapolates his calculations to conclude that unnecessary anxieties could undermine the cool America needs to summon if it wants to fight terrorism effectively. And he argues that the kind of electronic throttle Toyota uses improves gas mileage, and the dollars it saves “can be translated into human welfare.” As Wright philosophically concludes: “Life is full of trade-offs, and sometimes trade-offs involve death.” Now I get it – cutting gasoline expenses by, say, five percent (more for those who drive the most) is clearly worth the lives of a few statistically insignificant motorists (and family members or others they will take to the grave with them).