Tuesday, June 18, 2013
A reader emailed me a link to an article about drowning, writing that he finds
that it has "interesting epistemological undertones". The article is titled,
"Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning", and it debunks the widespread belief
that someone who is drowning is obviously fighting for his life.
How did this captain know -- from 50 feet away -- what the father couldn't recognize from just 10? Drowning is not the violent, splashing call for help that most people expect. The captain was trained to recognize drowning by experts and years of experience. The father, on the other hand, had learned what drowning looks like by watching television. If you spend time on or near the water (hint: that's all of us) then you should make sure that you and your crew know what to look for whenever people enter the water. Until she cried a tearful, "Daddy" she hadn't made a sound. As a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, I wasn't surprised at all by this story. Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for is rarely seen in real life.I agree that the article has interesting epistemological undertones, but I think the focus on television as the cause of the misconception is misplaced. The dramatic portrayals are technically wrong, although they may mimic the related phenomenon of aquatic distress, but they are not the only reason drowning doesn't "look like" drowning to the untrained eye. (Aquatic distress may precede drowning, and there may be more time to save the victim, who can often play a role in his own rescue.) Television is only perpetuating a stereotype that seems reasonable. After all, wouldn't you fight for your life if you realized you were drowning?
I think that last question holds the key to understanding what's really going on: We are misapplying introspection to a situation in which it cannot be used to understand the actions of others. I have not thought deeply about this topic, but I think I would probably prefer a different name than "Instinctive Drowning Response". Nevertheless, it is clear that the characteristic actions of someone who is drowning are limited by his inability to breathe adequately or are involuntary. This means that the actions a drowning person takes will not be the same that a fully conscious, rational person might take.
This is a very unusual situation, and the observations of experts have shown us that "What would I do?" is the wrong basis for forming a notion of what someone drowning would "look like". This is a case where applying our introspective knowledge of ourselves to understanding the actions of others is the wrong approach and will lead us to the wrong conclusion. Fortunately, we can learn from the observations and thinking of experts to recognize what drowning really looks like, and react appropriately if the necessity ever unfortunately arises.