Thursday, January 31, 2013

Are You Sure About That, Cassandra?

Since the election I have developed a morbid fascination with reading old right-leaning blogposts and their predictions in the days preceding the elections. It isn’t schadenfreude, since I don’t take joy in knowing that those people are going to be very unhappy in just 3 days, 1 day, or 6 hours. It’s more like watching Titanic, seeing the people dancing and dining, and knowing that there is an iceberg out there with their names on it. I suppose there were some people watching the movie and chuckling gleeful little chuckles deep in their hearts over what was coming next, but I think most people just felt sad, or even wondered what confident expectation of their own was about to come undone.

In the course of my reading, I came across this comment:

I trust your analysis [name]. You’re a straight shooter and an honest man, far more than Rasmussen, Rove, Morris, or Zogby (remember when he was taken seriously?). You’ve never wavered from telling the truth, even when some of the less crooked pollsters have taken the opportunity to tighten things up for profit here and there.I thank you, and think many other people out here appreciate you for being a lone voice of reason in a chorus of Cassandras.

Let’s review the sad history of Cassandra, shall we?

In Greek mythology, Cassandra . . . was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Her beauty caused Apollo to grant her the gift of prophecy. In an alternative version, she spent a night at Apollo's temple, at which time the temple snakes licked her ears clean so that she was able to hear the future (this is a recurring theme in Greek mythology, though sometimes it brings an ability to understand the language of animals rather than an ability to know the future).[2] When Cassandra of Troy refused Apollo, he placed a curse on her so that she and all her descendants' predictions would not be believed. She is a figure both of the epic tradition and of tragedy . . . 

While Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy (she warned the Trojans about the Trojan Horse, the death of Agamemnon, and her own demise), she was unable to do anything to forestall these tragedies since no one believed her.

So the thing about Cassandra was that her prophecies were always right. Always right, and nobody believed them. Our comment writer above was painfully accurate when he described the conservative writers who were predicting a Romney loss as Cassandras, but context shows that he didn’t mean it that way. I think the writer saw a Cassandra as one who prophesied doom (which is true), but missed the part where she was right in doing so.

In thinking about Cassandra over the years, I have come to realize what fine observers of human nature the ancient Greeks were. The myth of Cassandra reveals truths about human thinking. To be able to predict the future accurately, you have to be open to the idea that things won’t turn out the way you hope. You can’t just cherry pick the evidence you like and ignore or criticize the evidence you don’t like. Yet who is more likely to be able to sell an idea to others: the person who is open to evidence that is contrary to their hopes, or the person who is convinced zie is right and won’t look at contrary evidence?

I was in the position of Cassandra once. There was a horrible event in our city. Someone had been tossing rocks from overpasses, and after 2 or 3 such incidents, a woman was killed when the rock broke her windshield and then hit her head. We were talking about it at work and I opined that the rock tosser may have been a teen or teens who thought of it as a prank and didn’t foresee what could go wrong.

Another coworker, our psychologist, said no, this was the deliberate work of someone with a lot of anger. She was the psychologist, so I decided she was right and I was wrong and didn’t say any more about it. Two days later, two horrified teens turned themselves in. They had been throwing  the rocks as a prank and didn’t mean to kill anyone.

Unlike Cassandra, I am not always right, even when I do set aside my prejudices and wishful thinking and look at all the facts I can find. I’m not always disbelieved, either, and unfortunately, sometimes I’m believed when I’m wrong. I suspect, though, that we have all had our Cassandra moments, when we were right but were outargued by some blowhard who wasn’t.

It’s human nature.

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