Those who didn't catch this in the NY Times may find it thought provoking.
The final comment,"...the most important lesson may be that we should
reward people, not ridicule them, for thinking the impossible. After a
black swan like 9/11, we must look ahead, not in the rear-view mirror." is
probably never to be achieved, sadly.
LEARNING TO EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
The 9/11 commission has drawn more attention for the testimony it has
gathered than for the purpose it has set for itself. Today the commission
will hear from Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser to President
Bush, and her account of the administration's policies before Sept. 11 is
likely to differ from that of Richard Clarke, the president's former
counterterrorism chief, in most particulars except one: it will be disputed.
There is more than politics at work here, although politics explains a lot.
The commission itself, with its mandate, may have compromised its report
before it is even delivered. That mandate is "to provide a 'full and
complete accounting' of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and recommendations
as to how to prevent such attacks in the future."
It sounds uncontroversial, reasonable, even admirable, yet it contains at
least three flaws that are common to most such inquiries into past events.
To recognize those flaws, it is necessary to understand the concept of the
A black swan is an outlier, an event that lies beyond the realm of normal
expectations. Most people expect all swans to be white because that's what
their experience tells them; a black swan is by definition a surprise.
Nevertheless, people tend to concoct explanations for them after the fact,
which makes them appear more predictable, and less random, than they are.
Our minds are designed to retain, for efficient storage, past information
that fits into a compressed narrative. This distortion, called the
hindsight bias, prevents us from adequately learning from the past.
Black swans can have extreme effects: just a few explain almost everything,
from the success of some ideas and religions to events in our personal
lives. Moreover, their influence seems to have grown in the 20th century,
while ordinary events — the ones we study and discuss and learn about in
history or from the news — are becoming increasingly inconsequential.
Consider: How would an understanding of the world on June 27, 1914, have
helped anyone guess what was to happen next? The rise of Hitler, the demise
of the Soviet bloc, the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, the Internet
bubble: not only were these events unpredictable, but anyone who correctly
forecast any of them would have been deemed a lunatic (indeed, some were).
This accusation of lunacy would have also applied to a correct prediction
of the events of 9/11 — a black swan of the vicious variety.
A vicious black swan has an additional elusive property: its very
unexpectedness helps create the conditions for it to occur. Had a terrorist
attack been a conceivable risk on Sept. 10, 2001, it would likely not have
happened. Jet fighters would have been on alert to intercept hijacked
planes, airplanes would have had locks on their cockpit doors, airports
would have carefully checked all passenger luggage. None of that happened,
of course, until after 9/11.
Much of the research into humans' risk-avoidance machinery shows that it is
antiquated and unfit for the modern world; it is made to counter repeatable
attacks and learn from specifics. If someone narrowly escapes being eaten
by a tiger in a certain cave, then he learns to avoid that cave. Yet
vicious black swans by definition do not repeat themselves. We cannot learn
from them easily.
All of which brings us to the 9/11 commission. America will not have
another chance to hold a first inquiry into 9/11. With its flawed mandate,
however, the commission is in jeopardy of squandering this opportunity.
The first flaw is the error of excessive and na?ve specificity. By focusing
on the details of the past event, we may be diverting attention from the
question of how to prevent future tragedies, which are still abstract in
our mind. To defend ourselves against black swans, general knowledge is a
crucial first step.
The mandate is also a prime example of the phenomenon known as hindsight
distortion. To paraphrase Kirkegaard, history runs forward but is seen
backward. An investigation should avoid the mistake of overestimating cases
of possible negligence, a chronic flaw of hindsight analyses.
Unfortunately, the hearings show that the commission appears to be looking
for precise and narrowly defined accountability.
Yet infinite vigilance is not possible. Negligence in any specific case
needs to be compared with the normal rate of negligence for all possible
events at the time of the tragedy — including those events that did not
take place but could have. Before 9/11, the risk of terrorism was not as
obvious as it seems today to a reasonable person in government (which is
part of the reason 9/11 occurred). Therefore the government might have used
its resources to protect against other risks — with invisible but perhaps
The third flaw is related. Our system of rewards is not adapted to black
swans. We can set up rewards for activity that reduces the risk of certain
measurable events, like cancer rates. But it is more difficult to reward
the prevention (or even reduction) of a chain of bad events (war, for
instance). Job-performance assessments in these matters are not just
tricky, they may be biased in favor of measurable events. Sometimes, as any
good manager knows, avoiding a certain outcome is an achievement.
The greatest flaw in the commission's mandate, regrettably, mirrors one of
the greatest flaws in modern society: it does not understand risk. The
focus of the investigation should not be on how to avoid any specific black
swan, for we don't know where the next one is coming from. The focus should
be on what general lessons can be learned from them. And the most important
lesson may be that we should reward people, not ridicule them, for thinking
the impossible. After a black swan like 9/11, we must look ahead, not in
the rear-view mirror.
[Editor's Note: First published as an Op-Ed Page article in The New York
Times on April 8th.]
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