Sunday, June 12, 2011

Tsunamis, Then and Now

In 1755 there was an earthquake off the coast of Portugal. Early estimates were that up to 100,000 of the 300,000 people in Lisbon died as a result of the tsunami, the buildings falling and the fires. There were three reactions to this disaster that provide interesting parallels to reactions that we see today. The priests blamed the sinners, some of the new humanists blamed modern society for concentrating people in cities, and a few people took it upon themselves to investigate the nature of the event.

The priests were not marginalized nor made fun of like Pat Robertson in 2008 when he blamed the Haiti earthquake on a voodoo witch doctor that had made a deal with the devil 200 years earlier. These priests were able to freely roam the city and collect whatever rumors they might find of people who had not done their prayers or slept with the wrong person or whatever they might want to connect to the earthquake. That the earthquake occurred on All Saint’s Day just added to their reasoning, and I am using a very broad definition of “reasoning”. The accused were gathered together and ritually burned as a symbol of the eternity in hell that they were headed for.

Rousseau wrote a piece claiming that the number of deaths would not have occurred if people had not concentrated in cities, unnaturally. If they had been spread out in the hills in smaller buildings the tsunami would have been something interesting that happened somewhere away from most people and didn’t affect them much. This of course ignores all of the possible disasters that could befall people living in the hills in primitive dwellings.

Voltaire heard of all of this and used the power of his pen to respond. He wrote letters and poems and sat down for 3 days and immortalized the earthquake in the short story Candide. Candide is a fast paced story of an optimistic young man travelling around the globe finding fortune and misfortune. It is a mix of Quentin Tarantino, Monty Python and the Canterbury Tales. He wrote to satirize not only religion, but Optimism. Optimism was becoming an alternative to religion in the French Enlightenment and Voltaire saw no more reason in it than in the mythology of Christianity.

Voltaire was enjoying the pleasures of old age after battling the church throughout his life and bringing to light a new age of reason and rationality. He had the ear of royalty and aristocracy and had the means to help people who did not have such advantages. Voltaire was one of the last men who could speak and write on almost any subject and be considered an expert. Knowledge has grown too much since then and disciplines too specialized. People still write about how our cities should be built or where, but very few of them could stand out like Voltaire. When one person speaks or writes today, a hundred more claim greater knowledge and the rest of us find it difficult to invest the time to sort it all out.

We may have learned to not blindly trust the authority of the previous generation, but that generation had just as many and more obstacles to developing critical thinking skills as the current one does. We may not have Jesuit Priests roaming the streets looking for anyone asking the wrong questions, but we do have Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Nintendo, NASCAR, Lady Gaga and Newt Gingrich muddying the waters of information. The school system never quite caught up with the rapid changes of science. In the rush to teach us how to get to the moon, it didn’t have time to teach us how to think about whether or not that was the right priority.

There was a study a while back that showed that recently more studies come out that refute earlier studies. For many, the reaction to this is to dismiss all studies. That misses the point of studying. Science has not figured everything out, if it did, it would stop. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to those who first started studying and asking questions in a critical way, a way that admitted that we didn’t know what was going on, that we were fallible and vulnerable, but that maybe we could figure it out by doing something other than sitting in a darkened room and making up explanations or referring to 2,000 year old books. The people who studied the causes and effects of the quake are now part of a long tradition. This is the first documented case of someone studying an earthquake. Letters were sent out around the area asking what they experienced. This resulted in much more conservative numbers of deaths. Today would be shocked if something like this happened and it was not studied.

The affect of this event was both long term and immediate. Portugal was rebuilt and reformed. The Jesuit Priests were exiled in 1759, although the decision was reversed later. This did lead to Portugal becoming the first country in Europe to build a secular education system. We are still feeling the effects of this tremor.

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