The Black Swan

I’ve argued that the 9/11 Commission is fundamentally flawed in that it’s trying to review history as though it were lived with the perfect knowledge we have of the past – which we obviously cannot have of the future.

Tim Oren points us to an excellent op-end in the N.Y. Times on just this subject. It’s by risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and here are three great quotes:

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.

…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 effective results.

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.

I think we desperately need to learn to identify and respond to black swans, and that we need to build systems in our society and government that will let us do so. The swans are getting bigger and more deadly.

18 thoughts on “The Black Swan”

  1. I think that if we don’t look back and examine the mistakes we made, we’re going to repeat them. Looking back and knowing what we should have done will obviously give us a blueprint for the future!

  2. Resisting the temptation to dive into the swan metaphor . . .

    Whether you agree with the Bush Administration’s tactics to date or not (fwiw, I mostly do, although I think they could be communicating about two orders of magnitude better, and I’d like to see more obvious carrots along with the sticks), the general strategies for addressing terrorism seem pretty obvious: (1) Reduce the existing cadre of committed terrorists and disrupt their organizations; (2) Deny existing terrorists rest or refuge; (3) Deny existing terrorists access to sympathetic (or mercenary) states or their proxies; (4) Reduce the terrorist recruiting base.

    From a risk analysis perspective, Taleb is right. We cannot, by definition, anticipate “black swans.” Nothing has upset me in the current Presidential campaign so much as certain candidates’ suggestions that they would be capable of preventing terrorist attacks if they were elected. That’s hogwash. There will be terrorist attacks. In America. They will at least be “successful” (from the terrorists’ point of view) in the limited sense that Americans will die. Our job is to prevent those attacks from acquiring strategic significance. We have to make certain that future attacks (a) do not produce terror ultimately resulting in accession to terrorists’ demands; and (b) do not devastate our economy. The physical casualties are horrifying, and it’s impossible to value even a single life lost, but regardless of the human toll, a terrorist act is a strategic failure if it does not produce or contribute to a failure of will, or inflict substantial economic damage on the target.

    So the immediate focus should be upon eliminating as many purveyors of “black swans” as possible, and upon limiting the “worst-case scenario” impact of that particular class of threats. In practical terms, we must therefore concentrate our efforts in two areas — disrupting our adversaries’ planning and operations at a strategic level, and denying them access to the really horrible stuff that kills lots of people. I’m not saying we should ignore the smaller fry, but they should be a much lower priority. It may sound callous, but I’m much less worried about Ryder truck filled with fertilizer than I am about a suitcase filled with Sarin.

    Focus on destroying the terrorist infrastructure by killing and capturing leaders, strategists, and experts. Keep them from getting really horrible stuff by denying them stable bases of operations (i.e., anarchic or friendly states), and by denying them access to friendly or amoral states that will produce the nasty stuff and give/sell it to ideological fellow travellers/the highest bidder.

    A.L. is right that we should be thinking about how to identify and respond to black swans. One corollary: the work of those who are paid to do so should not be twisted for temporary political gain. But from my perspective, the highest-odds strategy has less to do with identifying/responding to black swans, and more to do with taking affirmative steps to limit the damage any black swan can do. Maybe it’s just semantics, but I thought I’d make my first comment on WoC a doozy. . .

  3. “No one”, I think you’re missing the point. Yes, we need to understand where our systems failed. But what do you do with systems that worked to design, but failed because the rules changed?

    Example: the passengers and crew on the planes that hit the towers and the Pentagon followed the book in dealing with a hijacking. There’s no reason to think they didn’t perform flawlessly. They just didn’t know they weren’t hostages but soon-to-be collateral damage.

    The passengers and crew on the fourth plane heard the news and adjusted, not saving themselves but probably saving many many others. They saw the Black Swan and they dealt with it.

    The question is, what is the 9/11 commission doing to help us think more like the passengers on Flight 93, and less like passengers on the three planes that hit the buildings? Not much that I’ve seen.

  4. Mark: actually I think you miss the point. According to its website, the 9/11 commission “is chartered to prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks.” It’s a government-wide survey; I think that’s a good thing. I also think that the bipartisanship is forcing all parties to answer some hard questions, in public — in essence, holding people accountable, which is also a good thing. If at all, you must appreciate the fact that our intelligence services will probably be overhauled as a result. (Read the news if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) I think anything we can think of to prevent another 9/11 is a good deal. Why don’t you?

    If you’re worried about passengers acting like they did on and before 9/11, I think you’re probably from another planet. Americans actually have some common sense; give ‘em some credit.

  5. Oh I missed this:

    But what do you do with systems that worked to design, but failed because the rules changed?

    Do read up on the wonderfully designed FBI! I think you’ll come to the conclusion that the 9/11 Commission is going to help the government change their design and adapt to the new rules. I’m frankly amazed it’s taken so long! Reform is long overdue!

  6. And change it needs to do so, and FAST! Five years for CIA to reform is simply unacceptable. When we’ve got all those black swans getting bigger and multiplying.

  7. Why don’t we see what kind of report they produce before pronouncing judgments?

    Seems like the fair and rational thing to do.

  8. It’s is unfortunate that the commission has ignored one important fact. The hijackers were able to seize the cockpit. The FAA’s own security asessment, years before, pointed out the vulnerability of the cockpit.

  9. The op-ed is a good link.

    Waiting for final decisions to be made by the 9-11 panel is neither necessarily fair nor reasonable. Anyone who’s served on a jury and kept a perfectly open mind until all evidence was presented knows that.

    The author writes about how we make decisions, how we learn, and the consequent variable behavior. We’re shaped in part by our environment. Time is an important element of that world.

    These panel hearings are too important. We each owe it to ourselves to devote what time is available to follow them. And we’re inevitably going to form varying opinions on a day to day basis, possibly in a manner we don’t understand. Enter this op-ed and other factors that help us better understand the conclusions we’re reaching.

    I don’t know that anyone will agree with the majority report or the minority report when released, or will agree ten years from now for that matter. We could of course wait and read it but that’s not going to happen in this imperfect world either.

  10. A.L.;

    I have no problem with your criticism of comments from individual commissioners (I have many myself) but your primary thesis here is that the Commission itself is fundamentally flawed because of its focus on past events. But to pronounce on that before the “Commission” has spoken (in its final report) is premature, because we don’t yet know whether the report will have some value or not.

    If you’re trying to say that it is flawed because commissioners are expressing opinions prior to the report, that’s another issue, but not the one you appear to be arguing.

    I also think the government owes it to the victims’ families to make every effort to determine whether 9/11 was inevitable (as many here argue) or if correctable mistakes were made. I don’t see why anyone would object to this.

  11. Why were there so many commissions examining Pearl Harbor? I mean, the odds of another large sneak air attack on a major American base were zero (primitive radar if nothing else).

    Perhaps they believed that institutional failures were likely to recur in different guises. I think there’s a bipartisan consensus that something was and likely still is wrong in our intelligence and counterterrorism bureaux. (Does the FBI have internal email working yet?) We’re seeing a lot of bureaucratic players yelling Not-Me, more or usually less convincingly.

  12. If one is bitten by a poisonous snake, retrospection will not help..oh, I shouldn’t have stepped there. One must immediately get to somewhere and conteract the venom.

  13. N.O., I agree that the foreign and domestic intelligence services probably need major overhaul. I have zero background in Intelligence, so if a comrehensive review of structural strengths and weaknesses comes out of this report that will be wonderful.

    If, on the other hand, the report is a reflection of the political gotcha games happening on screen, it will have done nothing other than affect the politics of the moment.

    I am not worried about airplane passengers reacting the same way to a hijack after 9/11. (Maybe my point about Flight 93 went over your head.) Instead I’m worried about politicians who can’t seem to change their behaviors.

  14. Interesting piece on F.B.I. special agent O’Niel .
    He died in the WTC on 9/11 .At the time was the Security Chief for the WTC.

    He was the top FBI man on Al Queda in Wash. then NYC .
    Nova did an excellent job in an objective manner and thereby exposed the office politics , partisan b.s. ,personal bias, and institutional bickering ,that led to the FBI preventing him from possibly exposing this plot , by removing him from the USS COLE investigation in Yemen – and all at the behest of Ambassador Bodine , for dubious reasons . Add that to the personal animus coming from Picard ,and what was effectively done by these people, was to remove the top man in the U S A ,an Al Queda expert of the highest degree , from an investigation that was even at the time of the Cole incident ,starting to point towards a much more major attack on the U S . O’niel indeed did believe Al Queda would take another shot at the WTC .
    He was successfully drummed out of the FBI into retirement only months before 9/11 .

    And unbelievably , the reports of “arabs taking flying lessons ” , even of not caring how to learn landing ! -coming from the FBI offices in the mid-west , were never sent to the NY office ,because of animus towards O’Niel -there can be no other expalnation for witholding those reports in Aug.’01 .

    I hope you’re all right, in assuming we will make much needed reforms .

    Excuse me I must go and barf now , for I felt sick watching this piece on Nova ,and now feel sick again for repeating again in words -and I havn’t posted the half-of it .

    ……better days ahead .

  15. This site is crap. we want to know some structual features of wa’s emblem the black swan. your site has wasted some of my valubale researching time.

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