THE MAGAZINE

Black Swans and the Challenge of Mitigating the Unknown

By Bob Raffel

The Black Swan Event

Nassim Taleb, in his book The Black Swan (Second Edition), refers to events that are characterized by three attributes. First, the event is what Taleb refers to as an outlier, in that it “…lies outside the realm of regular expectations.” Next, such events carry with them extreme consequences. Finally, although improbable (or precisely because they are improbable) human nature demands that these events be predictable and explicated. As such, Black Swans are retrospectively explained and thereby considered predictable. But as Taleb goes on to note, they are not. “Black Swans being unpredictable (italics added), we need to adjust to their existence (rather than naively try to predict them)…There are so many things we can do if we focus on…what we do not know.” Dealing with a Black Swan problem is made easier, Taleb suggests, when we “…focus on robustness to errors rather than improving predictions.” “The bottom line:” he goes on to say, is to “…be prepared!...Be prepared for all relevant eventualities.”

The Sandy Hook Problem

If Taleb is correct, the “experts” will look back upon the Sandy Hook shootings and attempt to understand how such a horrific event occurred; what we missed that might have permitted us to somehow prevent, or at least mitigate the tragedy. The shooting will be “explained”, rendered knowable within the realm of predictive experience and added to other Black Swans that we have turned into the white ones with whom we’re more comfortable. Taleb refers to this habit as “the retrospective distortion”. “Police searching for motive” the headlines read this morning. They were referring to the Sandy Hook shootings, trying to ascertain why Adam Lanza, a 20-year old “quiet” and “withdrawn” youth would kill 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school.

This begs a question: How is this helpful? What does this information bring to the tragedy that might help mitigate other such incidents? Why do we continue to attempt to close loops with data which provide little, if any assistance to the issue of school shootings? And since we believe that events such as this demand some solution, what do we do? How do we mitigate risk where the threat is fundamentally unpredictable and impact is very high? In risk terminology, the low-probability, high-consequence event. Sandy Hook.

Asking the right question

One possible approach (there are no answers) might lie in concentrating on the areas where we do have some data; where there is some measure of predictability. If we examine vulnerability in the risk equation R = T x V x C, some useful information becomes available. If meaningful threat characterization is impossible (e.g., who will mount the next attack, where will it occur, what weapons will be used, etc.), and the impact will be high, (due to the nature of school shootings and the frenzied media coverage that inevitably ensues), perhaps the answer lies elsewhere. As Socrates pointed out, wisdom lies not in knowing answers but in asking the right questions. We may not know who, when or even why, but we can make an education guess as to where. Not “where” in terms of the next school, but where in terms of target. Regardless of who the next school shooter is, he/she will attack a school: college, elementary/high school, private school, etc. And the areas within the school will be similar; administrative offices, classrooms, the cafeteria/student center, libraries – wherever the targets (students, teachers and administrative staff) congregate. This being the case, perhaps hardening likely areas within schools would be the most productive mitigation strategy.

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