Edge: Learning to expect the unexpected

posted Apr 22, 2004
in Practical Epistemology

[The 9/11 commision's] 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....

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.

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.

Very similar thoughts have been knocking around in my mind lately. One of my political pet peeves is accusing some political opponent of not doing enough to prepare for some reasonably unforseeable disaster, especially when I know full well that if the opponent was an ally, the accuser would be falling over themselves to defend the ally by (correctly!) observing the impossibility of action, and the fact nobody would have believed them.

It is no longer possible to consider 9/11 from the perspective we had before it occured, so let me offer a more neutral example of my own. Imagine two Universes, where I am the President in both:

  1. In my second State of the Union Address, I declare: "The risks of destruction of the entire human race by an asteroid are unacceptably high. While it is unlikely that an asteroid event will occur, if one was to occur the events could be catastrophic. It is within our power to develop technology that will enable us to detect and deflect such asteroids before impact with a high degree of reliability, but it will not be cheap. I am proposing that we dedicate umpteen billion dollars to the task. Because the world can not be safe enough for our children."

    Be honest. Imagine the political results. Imagine the political cartoons. ("We don't need an asteroid defense, the air in our President's head will provide adequate cushioning in the event of an impact." I think it would make a snazzier cartoon.) Imagine the odds of Congress going along with this. Imagine the screaming about how we need that money for things here on Earth... you shouldn't need to imagine too hard for that because you can hardly mention the space program in a group of people without hearing that one!

  2. In my second State of the Union address, I babble about some acceptable domestic welfare program instead.

Of course, you see what's coming, but I hope you've tried to imagine the results of the first universe from the point of view of today, when no such impact has occurred in recorded history on populated ground.

So, in both Universes, in my fourth year an asteroid decides to take out the West Coast... and I mean the whole thing. Millions dead. Canadians and Mexicans too. (Let's ignore the details of the impact and imagine the damage is contained for simplicity.) Except in the first one, the asteroid is detected and deflected harmlessly past the Earth.

The second universe is the point, of course. Accusations would quite justifiably fly that I should have been more concerned about this problem and paid more attention to it. And that's true enough, because even today we have all the warning we rationally need to be allocating much more then we do to this issue. And yet... and yet those criticisms must be looked at in the light of today, where in the real world the real President isn't saying anything about this, and nobody to speak of is calling him on it.

Ultimately, the President is our representative, and his power to do things other then what we want him to do are limited, most notably by Congress. It was flatly impossible for President Bush to make a big anti-terrorism push before 9/11. The same people screaming at him today for not doing it would be screaming because of the politically-incorrect steps that anti-terrorism sometimes entails. Nobody would ever know that 9/11 was averted, either, and even if they did notice the story would be played up as the Adminstration trying to take credit for preventing something that couldn't possibly have happened anyhow.

Like I said, you can't win.

As I like to say, the primary effect of technology is to speed society up. As we pass through societal stages more and more quickly, we start to live in a world of nothing but "outliers"; if we could be stuck in the world of 9/10 for a hundred years, we would end up with many 9/11-class events, but society moves on and makes all the old events impossible, meaning that the next Big Event that occurs, be it for good or for ill, will be something all new. The inability to think about or rationally handle "outlier" events is going to cost us more and more over the next few decades... and regrettably, I see little or nothing we can do about it.


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