Skeptics Corner – Looking For A Hero

Skeptics Corner – Looking For A Hero

How tragedies can cloud our judgment

Daniel Liang looks at a familiar world in an unfamiliar way – through a skeptical lens. Every month he peeks under the hood of a meme, myth, bias, or news article. Disclaimer: the opinions expressed do not represent the magazine, advertisers, employer, or the Taiwanese aviation authorities.

Looking For A Hero
There is a large but declining population of Taiwanese in Dongguan, mostly from factories set up when labor was cheap and plentiful. I work in a Taiwanese factory, and hang out with my Taiwanese friends often. I also have access to the notoriously salacious Taiwan media, which I often wish I didn’t. Why? Because media influences our thinking, even though we don’t like to admit it. So, instead of debunking a myth or dubious product this month, we turn our gaze inward and do some introspection. Judgments can be clouded by emotion, and nothing brings out emotion like a highly charged event. This is such an example, inspired by a conversation with my Taiwanese friends.

On Feb 4, 2015, TransAsia flight 235 ran into trouble shortly after takeoff and plunged into a river, clipping a taxi and bridge in the process. In total, 15 people survived and 43 perished, including 28 from mainland China.

The Media Spin
In the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe, people will naturally look for anything to lessen the pain or divert attention. What people want is something different to focus on; a silver lining or a hero. After all, it changes the narrative from an outright tragedy to a hero fighting to the end.

By declaring the pilot a hero, however, Taiwan’s media practically precluded the possibility that he was at fault.

In the following days, the Taiwan media pushed the hero angle with reckless abandon. The media praised the pilot for flying along the river, avoiding populated areas, and making it less tragic than it could have been. He was framed as a hero, a saint who gave his life to save others. The general public, eager to shift their focus, gobbled it hook, line, and sinker. Anyone even remotely questioning that narrative quickly experienced the viciousness that only online anonymity can engender.

Did The Pilot Deserve To Be Called A Hero?
The first point to examine is whether the pilot was at fault to any degree. If pilot error caused the flying tube to inadvertently engage a lake-bed, it would take a Stockholm Syndrome-type of twisted logic to call the pilot a hero. By declaring the pilot a hero, however, Taiwan’s media practically precluded the possibility that he was at fault. Evidently, their favorite sport is jumping to conclusions.

The final investigation report is not published yet, but preliminary reports seem to indicate that the pilot might have turned off the wrong engine. This two engine plane can fly on one engine, but definitely not with zero. This is sadly reminiscent of the surgeon who amputated the wrong leg.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume the pilot had no fault whatsoever. The question is, were his actions so extraordinarily courageous and altruistic to qualify him as a hero? Did he go above and beyond what is normally expected or required, and significantly risking personal welfare for the benefit of others?

The pilot seems to have maintained composure in the face of mechanical problems, and flew the plane along a river to minimize collateral damage. Some argue, that alone qualifies him as a hero, as a normal person would not be able to. This is fallacious, as a pilot should not be compared to a layperson. By that line of reasoning, a doctor would be a hero for not fainting when he is elbow deep in a patient.

Pilots are trained specifically to handle emergencies; to first stay calm, then aviate, navigate, and communicate. The bar is set high, and we rightfully expect our pilots to meet that standard. Choosing to fly along an open, flat area with emergency landing potential is a basic part of pilot training, based on the FAA emergency procedure manual. This is a no-brainer; any sane person would choose an open river over a highly populated concrete jungle, with or without pilot training. Calling the pilot a hero simply for not committing mass murder cheapens the word and renders it meaningless.

The last reason is a bit more subtle. In the “trolley problem” moral thought experiment, you see a runaway trolley barreling down the tracks. Tied to the end of the tracks are five people, certain to die if no action is taken. There is a lever that can cause the trolley to go down an alternate track, at the end of which lies one person. The moral dilemma is a difficult choice between causing one to die through action or five to die through inaction.
In this case, the pilot is the decision maker, but in a sad twist, also sitting in the metaphorical trolley. His own life is on the line, which muddies the line between self-preservation and altruism; he is not risking anything more than he already has. I suspect that every reasonable person would do the same out of altruism, if not self-preservation, with few notable exceptions.

To summarize, the pilot should not be called a hero because:

  1. He was doing his job (nothing extraordinary)
  2. His life was on the line (anatomy preservation)
  3. He very possibly was significantly at fault (shut off wrong engine)

Why We Love Heroes
The love for heroes appears in every culture, and can be explained by evolutionary psychology. Simply put, we yearn for heroes. Genuine altruism touches upon our innermost sense of morality. It tells an inspiring narrative of fellow beings who voluntarily risk life and limb for others. It triggers the hope that, when the day comes, we ourselves might find the courage to do the same. It is a compelling narrative indeed.

Looking for a silver lining, however, that isn’t there is like forcing an explanation that doesn’t fit. Both are emotionally appealing but serve no real purpose, because in the end, a false hero provides no comfort, and a poor excuse does not exculpate.

We would not be human beings if we did not have emotions, and emotions can be manipulated to affect judgment. False narratives affect our judgment by providing an emotional comfort zone; somewhere we can take shelter and recuperate. Although we can never be fully immune against manipulation, as long as we are willing to venture out of that comfort zone, a little skepticism can go a long way.

点此阅读中文: Chinese (Simplified)

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