Black Swans and the Challenge of Mitigating the Unknown

By Bob Raffel


As applied to school shootings however this model, as one study pointed out, has inherent limitations. Although it holds up reasonably well in predicting risk from natural hazards, “…defining the threat and estimating probabilities are inherently challenging because of the lack of experience with such events…” It is challenging to adequately define the threat of a school shooting incident. Data is scarce (i.e., there haven’t been enough of these events to produce reliable data, despite around-the-clock media focus when such events occur). Variables are endless. Methods, equipment and approaches to the target available to an attacker are almost unlimited. Threat, moreover, is sometimes characterized through an assessment of capability, intent, history and targeting, among others. Given the availability of guns, the muddled mental states of many of these shooters and a wide spectrum of opportunity, characterizing threat in the context of a school shooting incident is virtually impossible. What then, are we to do? We can’t protect everything, always. Also, more indirect approaches to the problem, such as behavioral analysis have limited applicability in a school setting.


It is arguably in the area of consequence where school shootings are most influential. Also referred to as impact, the after-effects of school shootings are undeniably dramatic and long term. The media, who bemoan the “evil” deed while interviewing 8-year old “eyewitnesses” , add immeasurably to the level of impact involved in these events. One article, recommending changes in our approach to school shooting incidents, makes the point that “…media coverage following school shootings can be extreme in both scope and intensity” .

The recent media frenzy at Sandy Hook underscores this issue: unrelenting press coverage of a deeply emotional and tragic event increases impact exponentially. A 24/7 news cycle and the intrinsic news value of the Sandy Hook shootings only added to the shock and sadness felt across the United States and the world. Thus, although school shootings are themselves intrinsically high-impact events, a ubiquitous press greatly exacerbates their consequences.

In sum then, school shootings are inherently high impact events, driven by threats that are often difficult to characterize, predict or mitigate. They are, in fact, Black Swans.



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