Comments on “Disobey!”

There have been quite a few Web comments and pointers recently on the very short piece I wrote for the June issue of Wired about the National Institute for Standards and Technologyís report on who escaped from world trade tower attacks. (Scroll down to ìproject 7î ñ it is a 300 page PDF.)

I bring a few of these comments together below, mainly for my own reference.

On the Reason website, Steve Smith wrote:

Wolf’s article aside, it’s probably not a good idea to follow a policy of ignoring reasonable suggestions from emergency lifesaving personnel, based solely on the anecdotal example of 9/11.

Smith was responding to the overly blithe headline and lead sentence, which invites misinterpretation. On the Reason site, I acknowledged his criticism:

I hope to compensate for the oversimplification in my story with a much large piece on network-based emergency response that should come out this summer in Wired. I did not mean to suggest that nobody should listen to a 911 operator. (I have recently spent time in a state-of-the-art 911 center listening in on calls, and I know very well how valuable these systems can be.) The point I was making was that a successful evacuation – and the Trade Center evacuation was very successful – depends upon a willingness to disobey, even a certain instinct for disobedience. Fortunately, this instinct seems to be widespread in humans, When given commands in an emergency, we tend to mill about for a bit, seeking confirmation of the reasonableness of these commands, and mixing the content of the commands with other information present in our environment. “Milling” is a problem, in one sense, as it slows down our response. But it is also an asset, as it allows other information and immediate environmental cues to rationally alter our behavior. Good emergency response depends upon taking this reasonable skepticism into account, and even encouraging it.

Ray Baxter questioned the numbers and the conclusions:

I can’t imagine anyone who has ever stood in a line at a security checkpoint, or listened to the lies of an airline employee would be inclined to mindlessly obey instructions in what seemed like a life or death situation.

But Wolf’s conclusion is a speculation based on N=1 reasoning. Yes, in the case of the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11, 2001, it was probably better to disobey orders. But even as it was, the odds of surviving were pretty high. According to the executive summary, “only seven occupants (of WTC 2) who started evacuating below the impact region were known not to have survived,” and “only 11 occupants initially below the 78th floor were killed.” There doesn’t seem to be much to discriminate between Wolf’s hypothesis and its converse. Where are the examples of those below the impact region who obeyed authority and died? Was that the 7 or 11 people who died?

The population who could shed light on the conclusion are those above the impact zone in WTC 2. Those survivors who disobeyed authorities and left in the period between the first attack and the second attack support the conclusion; as do those who died because they obeyed authorities and remained. Sadly, there is no evidence from the second group, so we don’t even know if there were any members of this group. Maybe everyone who died was also disobeying authority.

In my reply, I again promised to make up for the oversimplified take on 911 in my upcoming piece on disaster response. But I also pointed out that the numbers I used come from the NIST report itself, which is very detailed and thorough. In particular:

The two types of “disobedience” I was referring to were the orders to “shelter in place” and the long-standing rule to avoid the elevators and take the stairs in case of disaster. The NIST report attempts to estimate the number of people who would have died if:

1. Nobody from the second building to be hit had begun to evacuate in the time between the first attack and the second attack.

2. Nobody had taken the elevator.

It is not necessary to follow all the lines of their argument here, but I highly recommend the report to anybody of a technical bent who is curious about what actually happened in the towers after the plane hit.

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