Drone Footage Shows the Scale of the Destruction of Aleppo



Statistical figures describing the scale of humanitarian crises do not cause us to feel empathy in the same way that images of people that are suffering do. The world was moved by the plight of Syrians when images of young children were shared on social media, such as Aylan Kurdi lying lifeless on a Turkish beach or Omran Daqneesh sitting in an ambulance after a bombing, wiping blood off his face. These pictures capture the suffering of two individuals, but how do you document the deaths of tens, even hundreds of thousands? The war in Syria has claimed the lives of 470,000 people and the Assad regime and Russia continue to bombard what was Syria's most populous city, Aleppo.

The New York Times has published a video that was shot by a drone surveying the destruction in Aleppo. The author of the accompanying article wonders whether the video will cause people to feel empathy for the victims of the bombings in the same way as images of individual people. What are we to make of such large scale destruction? Are we able to fully process that each dot seen below is person with a life, a story, a family, a future? And more importantly, will any sympathy generated from such visual accounts move the world to act in preventing further deaths in Syria?

You can view the video on The New York Times website by clicking here.

The Arithmetic of Compassion – NY Times Op-Ed

In this December 2015 essay published in the New York Times, Scott Slovic and Paul Slovic explain psychic numbing, pseudoinefficacy, and the prominence effect for a lay audience. The authors provide vivid examples of psychic numbing in action. For instance, they note that although the attention of the world briefly turned to the Syrian refugee crisis when a photograph of Aylan Kurdi was published, 14 Syrian children drowned in the Aegean Sea the very next day. The essay asks, “Did you notice? Did you care?” To learn more about psychic numbing and related phenomena, read on in the New York Times website.

September on Jessore Road

Photograph of Allen Ginsberg by Dijk, Hans Van / ANEFO.

Photograph of Allen Ginsberg by Dijk, Hans Van / ANEFO.

By Scott Slovic

Originally posted on July 20, 2016 on OSU Press

I spent the first part of August 2015 lecturing in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and helping to establish the Bangladesh branch of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). Bangladesh is one of the most ecologically vulnerable regions in the world, highly susceptible to flooding and rising sea levels and with a large, impoverished population unable to avoid environmentally damaging sources of income that are also hazardous to human health (such as “ship breaking”).

I remembered from my childhood that Bangladesh had been the location of terrible human suffering, but I did not recall the specifics. More than anything, I knew about the famous Concert for Bangladesh that former Beatles guitarist George Harrison and Ravi Shankar had organized in New York City in 1971. I did not realize that most Bangladeshis have the year 1971 scarred into their memories. That was the year of the brutal civil war between West Pakistan and East Pakistan that led to the separation of Pakistan and Bangladesh. It was a war fought over “language autonomy” (the right of Bangladeshis to use Bangla, the major language of East Pakistan). The language autonomy movement was spurred in great part by the efforts of intellectuals at Dhaka University, where my conference on ecocriticism was taking place. Everywhere on the campus there are murals and statues and small museums, remembering the efforts and sacrifices of freedom fighters some forty-five years ago.

On August 10th, before heading to the airport to begin my thirty-six-hour trip home to Idaho, I went with a student to visit the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka. Along with many tattered, yellowing documents, laminated photographs of shirtless men carrying machine guns, and a room full of neatly stacked skulls and femurs in glass cases, there is an open-air, covered walkway on the top level of the simple museum, as one nears the end of the series of exhibits, where international responses to the liberation war are displayed in a scrap-book like array of photographs and documents on the wall of the building. Many world leaders are shown expressing their support for the Bangladeshi people in their fight for freedom and in their time of humanitarian struggle. I learned from this wall of images that President Richard Nixon supported Pakistan during this war, while liberal American leaders, such as Senator Edward Kennedy, were outspoken in their efforts to aid Bangladesh.

On the museum wall, near photos of Indira Gandhi and other political leaders, there are two long posters presenting both English and Bangla versions of American poet Allen Ginsberg’s “September on Jessore Road,” which details his first-hand experience of the human suffering during the 1971 liberation war. Immediately it struck me that Ginsberg’s poem was profoundly relevant to the Numbers and Nerves project in his effort to convey a situation of vast suffering vividly to people who might be able to help in some way. In fact, one stanza in the middle of the poem exhorts, “Ring O ye tongues of the world for their woe … Ring in the conscious of America[n] brain,” suggesting that the goal of this work is to somehow resonate in the “brain” of Americans and other citizens of the developed world in order to elicit intervention and aid.

Readers of Numbers and Nerves are likely to think of many other examples of powerful literature, music, film, and visual art that seek to convey numerical information and inspire individual and collective action. The story of my encounter with Allen Ginsberg’s poem shows that even though I have been thinking about the Numbers and Nerves project for so many years, I continue to stumble across relevant texts that I hadn’t previously thought about.

Although Ginsberg’s poem does not do what so many of our examples in the book Numbers and Nerves end up doing, which is to switch back and forth between individual stories and portrayals of “the big picture,” the writer relies in interesting ways on rhetorical questions (which draw the reader into contemplation as he or she tries to answer the questions) and repetition of dizzyingly large numbers (Millions…, millions…, millions). If you go online and listen to the poet recite—or, rather, sing—this work on Youtube, there is a lulling, incantatory repetitiveness to the performance until Ginsberg gets to the final stanza, which he sings slowly and with a kind of agonized emotion, suddenly shifting from numbness to pain. “September on Jessore Road” is powerful demonstration of the effort to communicate the emotional meaning of large-scale social upheaval and human suffering. I recommend that readers of Numbers and Nerves also go online to find the written text of Ginsberg’s poem and recordings of his performance of this work.

The poem can be found at this website:

Ginsberg, Allen. (1971 / 2011, November 7). “September on Jessore Road.” The Allen Ginsberg Project. Retrieved from http://ginsbergblog.blogspot.com/2011/11/mondriaan-string-quartet-september-on.html

Why Statistics on Human Tragedy Fail to Arouse Compassion

Professor Paul Slovic recently spoke with the Data Stories podcast about why statistics of human suffering fail to elicit empathy. Dr. Slovic describes his experiments on statistical numbing and discusses how we as practitioners of compassion can seek to overcome this psychological hinderance to empathy.

Listen to the podcast at the Data Stories website.

"One Picture Broke the Heart of the World"

Google search terms "Syria," "refugees," and "Aylan" surged in September 2015.

Google search terms "Syria," "refugees," and "Aylan" surged in September 2015.

The Atlantic contributor Amos Zeeberg used a series of graphics created by Paul Slovic in his January 6, 2016 article "How Images Trigger Empathy," which focuses on the identifiable victim effect.

"To perceive tragedy, we have to see a person . . . as an individual," writes Zeeberg, who also notes that charities such as Children International, who share images of individuals with donors, seem well aware of this effect.

Drawing on a 2013 study by Dr. Slovic and his colleagues, Zeeberg offers the hopeful sentiment that science is beginning to aid us in understanding the power of photography to move us to help those in need.

Many refugees, however, do not achieve the sad celebrity of Aylan Kurdi—instead, they remain anonymous, faceless, unknown, and far away. To cross these borders, we must become aware of psychological pitfalls that keep us from acting as if every human life has equal value.

“We Care Greatly About Protecting a Single Person in Distress, Particularly If They Have a Face and a Name and Happen to Look Like Us”

Children of War.jpg

Paul Slovic and Nicole Smith Dahmen published an op-ed in Quartz September 2, 2016 entitled “A year after Aylan Kurdi’s tragic death, the world is still numb to the Syrian refugee crisis."

In it, the authors give an overview of the aftermath caused by the global publication of images of first one, then a second small Syrian child refugee. Nearly 500,000 deaths have occurred since the Syrian war began in 2011, they remind us, and those photographs became the catalyst for some action, such as Germany and Austria opening their borders to crossing migrants, Pope Francis urging Catholic churches to host refugees, and increased donations to funds for Syrian refugees.

They point out, however, that psychic numbing steals our empathy and our will to act. When compounded by our irrational sense of inefficacy, we may begin to feel that our efforts are nothing more than a drop in the bucket.

Slovic and Dahmen suggest we may balance emotion with reason by employing aids to decision-making and pushing for laws and institutions that are grounded in moral reasoning.

What can we do when faced with inefficacy based on a flawed arithmetic of compassion? Perhaps more than charitable donations or social-media sharing.

Psychic Numbing (originally posted at OSU Press)

Author: Paul Slovic

The human mind is capable of astonishing feats of creative problem solving and technological wizardry. And we are good with numbers, too, when we think slowly and carefully about them—witness the three-billion-mile voyage the New Horizons spacecraft just made in its close encounter with Pluto.

But, most of the time, we let our brain calculate for us in a fast, intuitive mode of thinking where answers come, not as numbers or numerical comparisons of benefits and costs, but rather as feelings—good, bad, attractive, unattractive, likable or not, etc. Psychologists refer to these feelings as “affect.” When the objects of our attention are people, or other creatures in distress, these feelings represent what Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert has called “the arithmetic of compassion.”

Unfortunately, when we let our intuitive feelings function as our “moral compass,” the arithmetic of compassion is often faulty, in ways that Scott and I describe in the early chapters of Numbers and Nerves. Evolution designed our faculties of vision and hearing to be most sensitive to faint sounds and dim images, to alert us quickly to subtle signs of impending danger. But a nervous system that is exquisitely sensitive to small phenomena cannot sustain that sensitivity as sound becomes louder and light becomes brighter. Doubling the sound or light energy of a stimulus does not double its perceived loudness or brightness. Remarkably, and unfortunately, a similar desensitization occurs when we rely on our quick intuitive feelings to judge the value of amounts of money or numbers of endangered lives. Finding 200 dollars does not make us twice as happy as finding 100, and hearing about 200 threatened lives does not distress us twice as much as the news of 100 does. In some circumstances, these 200 endangered lives may even feel less important than 100. A strange arithmetic, indeed—a form of “psychic numbing.”

The introduction to our book illustrates this desensitization with this four-photo display of candles, where every candle represents a life.

The first lit candle brightens the scene markedly. The second candle makes it a bit brighter, but not twice as much. Going from 30 candles in the third image to 31 in the fourth hardly seems to make a difference. In blunt terms, with this kind of thinking, the felt value of a life is not fixed. We often go to great lengths to protect a single person, even a single animal or a tree. But those individual lives feel less valuable as the number of other lives at risk increases. In such circumstances, our efforts to protect individuals similarly decrease.

One way to counter psychic numbing and better apprehend the scale of threats to humans, other species, and the planet more broadly may be to link faces, names, stories, and images to the statistics in vivid, multidimensional ways. In the latter sections of our book, we call on writers and visual artists to show how this might be done and why it is important in a world facing many challenges. You could say that our aim in creating this book has been to facilitate a more rational arithmetic of compassion.