Nobody weeps for statistics

  • One Man's Meat
  • Saturday, 14 Jul 2018

Pep talk: A filepic showing Nopparat Khantavong, head coach of the ‘Wild Boars’ football team and his players during a training session at a school in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province. — AFP

A sensational anecdote, even if it’s about one person, often gets more attention than the sheer numbers of a major tragedy. 

THE ordeal is over. After nearly three weeks trapped in a cave in northern Thailand, 12 boys and their football coach have been rescued.

The world was enthralled with the extraordinary efforts to save the Wild Boars football players – aged between 11 and 16 – and the 25-year-old coach. On WhatsApp groups, Twitter and Facebook, many Malaysians were posting their thoughts on the unfolding drama.

Me too.

I, however, wondered why of all the stories in the world, it was this particular one that had touched a global nerve.

There have been other big stories over the last three weeks but not many people are following them.

For example, in Japan, more than 155 people were killed and two million evacuated after floods and landslides triggered by torrential rainfall.

Thousands of Syrians have fled rebel-held Daraa, which was hit by intensive “earth-shattering” airstrikes ordered by President Bashar al-Assad.

At least 2.2 million children in south Sudan are not receiving any education, the highest proportion of out-of-school children in the world according to a Unesco report.

Around 2.2 million Yemeni children are malnourished because of the bombing campaign by Saudi Arabia and its allies against Syiah rebels in a deadly conflict called the “Forgotten War”.

Thousands of Rohingya continue to flee violence and persecution in Myanmar and they have become refugees in Bangladesh.

Some of the above information I had to Google as they don’t appear on my social media feed or WhatsApp.

Why am I enthralled by the ordeal of the Wild Boars football team?

It is about human drama ... better than most of the series on Netflix. It is something I can relate to –although I don’t think I will go caving, even in the distant future.

I put myself in the Wild Boars’ football boots and imagine how I would cope if I was trapped at an elevated, dry platform dubbed Pattaya Beach.

My initial reaction would probably be of frustration as my smartphone would not have a signal for me to tweet, Instagram, WhatsApp or Facebook my ordeal.

I’m sure I would feel claustrophobic.

“I once sat in a window seat in the last row of a budget airline plane, next to a bulky man, and I got an anxiety attack. I felt like I was a sardine stuck in a can.

Luckily, my ordeal was temporary. I paid for an upgrade and I changed to an aisle seat at the front row.

As I thought about the boys stuck in the cave, I also thought about whether I could survive on Pattaya Beach.

The ordeal also presented a puzzle. How to get them out of the cave? It was fascinating to read the several rescue scenarios and whether Elon Musk’s mini-submarine could do the job.

There was also tragedy. Saman Gunan, a former Thai Navy SEAL, died after entering the cave to lay oxygen tanks along the exit route. I wondered why a man needed to die during a rescue mission.

When I was thinking of why the Thai cave drama received the attention of the world, I was reminded of “The Pull of the Sensational”, which I read in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

In the book, Taleb argued that abstract statistical information does not sway us – no matter how sophisticated the person – as much as an anecdote.

He gave the example of a toddler who fell into a well in Italy in the late 1970s. The crying boy was stuck in the bottom of the well as the rescue team could not pull him out of the hole. The whole of Italy (and the world) were gripped by his ordeal.

“Meanwhile, the civil war was raging in Lebanon, with an occasional hiatus in the conflict.

“While in the midst of their mess, the Lebanese were also absorbed in the fate of that child. The Italian child,” Taleb wrote.

“Five miles away, people were dying from the war, citizens were threatened with car bombs, but the fate of the Italian child ranked high among the interests of the population in the Christian quarter of Beirut.”

The many people stuck in conflict areas such as Yemen, Sudan and Syria, are just statistics. Whereas the 13 Thais presented a gripping anecdote.

Taleb wrote: “As Stalin, who knew something about the business of mortality, supposedly said, ‘One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.’ Statistics stay silent in us.”

The other similar story to the Thai cave and Italian toddler is the Chilean mining accident.

It happened in 2010. But many will remember it as it was a gripping story – 33 people sealed inside a mine in the Atacama Desert in Chile for 69 days.

The dramatic rescue effort captured the world’s attention. Many could relate to the ordeal of the Chilean miners.

The sensational (a great story) trumps statistics (the dead thousands). That’s the reality of the world.

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Opinion , Philip Golingai , One Man's Meat


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