Death in Iraq and Flaws in the Human Brain

A friend of mine sent me an article recently that questions the reliability of some estimates of the number of civilians killed in the War in Iraq. Entitled “Body Counting,” it appears in the April 2008 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. I have three quick responses.

  • As the author states, even if the death toll in Iraq is 150,000 rather than 600,000, it is still a high price. We must honestly asses our answers to some very difficult questions. Have the results been worth this mortal cost? Could better planning could have saved some of these people? Should the US have invaded at all?
  • I am often disappointed by the fallibility and insufficiency of the human brain. Our brains are prejudiced by irrelevant for false information. They let our emotions overpower our reason when facts contradict what we believe or want to believe, and we become emotionally entrenched in positions that should not be very emotionally stimulating. They are “terrible at dealing with uncertainty,” which is critical to understanding the results of any scientific study. Given all of these flaws in our mental capacities, I am sometimes surprised we have managed to build this civilization.
  • Since no other adequate resource is available, all of the flaws of the human brain must have been discovered by people using their brains. We posses sufficient meta-cognition to understand the imperfections of our own brains and attempt to overcome them. This gives me hope. If we are aware of these imperfections, can discern when we are betrayed by them, and learn from these experiences, perhaps we can make better decisions. Perhaps we can do a better job with the next war.
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