Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Cassandra Complex

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was the daughter of the Trojan King Priam and his wife Hecuba.  Apollo, the god of prophecy, was infatuated with Cassandra’s beauty and gave her the gift of prophecy in order to win her love.  But Cassandra spurned Apollo’s romantic advances.  So Apollo cursed her so that no one would ever believe her prophetic warnings.  Cassandra, unable to convince people of her dire predictions, then had to spend the rest of her life watching helplessly as her prophetic warnings came true.  She knew what the future held but was unable to change it.

A “Cassandra complex” occurs when valid warnings about the future are ignored or dismissed and has become a metaphor used in psychology, environmentalism, science, medicine, politics, religion, and business. 

There are many “Cassandra’s” in our world today.  They write blogs, editorials, and books; they’re the talking heads on television news shows; they’re the voices on talk radio; they preach from the pulpits every Sunday; they debate and make political speeches; they warn people of unhealthy practices; they predict market trends; they advise people on how to invest their money; they warn people about the perils of climate change; and they put their jobs on the line for something they believe in, etcetera, etcetera.  Sometimes they’re right and other times they’re wrong which are why most of us remain skeptical because we can’t tell the difference between the warnings of true and false prophets.

Six months before the fatal Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986, Roger Boisjoly, a top ranking engineer with Morton Thiokol, tried to warn his superiors about the looming danger posed by the O-rings on the solid rocket boosters designed and manufactured by Morton Thiokol.  He warned Thiokol management of the adverse effects of cold weather on the O-ring seals of the boosters writing, “the result could be a catastrophe of the highest order, loss of human life.” 


The night before the launch, when the weather at the Florida launchpad dipped below freezing temperatures, Mr. Boisjoly and four other Thiokol engineers joined in a teleconference with NASA and Thiokol vice presidents, urging the Thiokol representatives to exercise their rights as the manufacturer of a critical component to postpone the launch.  However, the vice presidents felt that the case for postponing the launch had been based more on gut feelings and hunches, and lacked the conclusive data required to delay the launch, which had already been postponed twice.  After advising the other Thiokol VPs to “take off their engineering hats and put on their management hats,” Thiokol general manager Jerry Mason gave the launch approval.

In the investigation that followed the disaster, Boisjoly became widely known as a whistle-blower when he provided internal Thiokol corporate documents to a presidential commission.  Included in the documents was the memo he had written warning of the danger to the O-rings in cold weather.  Following his testimony at the commission, he was cut off from space work at Thiokol and was shunned by colleagues and friends.  Morton Thiokol management even tried to make him a scapegoat for the disaster.  Boisjoly resigned from Thiokol in protest and never worked as an engineer again.

Boisjoly would later be vindicated for his actions, and awarded the Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility.  He went on to speak at more than 300 universities and civics groups about corporate ethics, and became sought after as an expert in forensic engineering.  He died of cancer on January 6, 2012 at the age of 73.  [This was taken from an article by Joel Spark in Space Safety Magazine; also see this wikipedia article on Roger Boisjoly and this on his scapegoating at Morton Thiokol]

Roger Boisjoly was a true prophet or "Cassandra" and put his job on the line to avert the Challenger disaster.  But no one would listen to his warnings.  All management at Morton Thiokol and NASA had to do was use their natural reason and look at the empirical (observational) evidence Boisjoly provided.  

Much of our natural reason involves “pattern recognition”: we see A, B, and C occurring and we conclude D will result.  Meteorologists use this concept extensively to predict the weather; intelligence analysts use this concept to predict the actions of our enemies; and physicians use this concept to diagnose illnesses; psychologists use this concept to understand human behavior.  Often times in life it's nearly impossible to collect enough data to support our conclusions using deductive reasoning (top-down logic), so we must use our natural reason to make inferences and draw conclusions.  This is called inductive reasoning (bottom-up logic). 

There are some people who may have the gift of true prophecy like Cassandra and can predict the future.  But all the false prophets in the world drown out their message.  So use your God given ability of natural reason to filter truth from falsehood and strive to look for the truth.

(Note: Here's a link to one of my favorite ABBA songs Cassandra.)

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