Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Black Swans and Tsunamis

It's been hard to write a mere blog because of the tension surrounding the unfolding events in Japan. The threat of nuclear meltdown has to be, for the Japanese, like the realization of one's worst nightmare: Hiroshima and Nagasaki coming from the dark past to evoke the horrors of burning and sickness. Most of the time I've been trying to imagine what's it's like for them during these agonizing days.

Yet, we have to try to learn something from everything we experience. What can we learn from a massive earthquake and tsunami, and from the ensuing and continuing nuclear crisis?

The first thing, it seems, is that earthquakes and tidal waves can always be much worse, by orders of magnitude, than we can imagine or plan for. A long, thick reinforced seawall along the city of Shizugawa, two stories high, was supposed to protect from tsunamis; but, it was overwhelmed and breached in seconds, and the town, with its tsunami shelters, was wiped from the face of the earth; all people could do was run -- until the waters caught up with them...

As far as nuclear power plants are concerned, there have been three main concerns: earthquakes, terrorism, and "accidents." Chernobyl and TMI were of the last type, with the meltdown in Chernobyl probably directly accounting for a thousand deaths and many more thousands of illnesses. We have not yet had a terrorism incident, but the sequence of events in Japan show that a direct, explosive breach of the protective shells of certain reactors is not needed in order to set them on a path of self-destruction. We now see that cooling systems are a weak link, and backup power for them is also fragile.

I recently read that nuclear plants in the U.S. must be designed to withstand the worst natural event that has ever happened in their area. Think about that -- especially in terms of what we know about chaos, history being made, and Murphy's Law -- and don't forget O-rings and the Challenger disaster.

Which brings me to "Black Swans" -- and I don't mean spinoffs from the Natalie Portman movie. Here's the first paragraphs from the Wikipedia article:

"The Black Swan Theory or Theory of Black Swan Events is a metaphor that encapsulates the concept that The event is a surprise (to the observer) and has a major impact. After the fact, the event is rationalized by hindsight.

The theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain:

  1. The disproportionate role of high-impact, hard to predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance and technology
  2. The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities)
  3. The psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs

Unlike the earlier philosophical "black swan problem", the "Black Swan Theory" (capitalized) refers only to unexpected events of large magnitude and consequence and their dominant role in history. Such events, considered extreme outliers, collectively play vastly larger roles than regular occurrences.

Black Swan Events were characterized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book (revised and completed in 2010), The Black Swan. Taleb regards almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events, and artistic accomplishments as "black swans"—undirected and unpredicted. He gives the rise of the Internet, the personal computer, World War I, and the September 11 attacks as examples of Black Swan Events."

Insofar as an event is unpredicted, Taleb's criterion is too loose. Few people can predict the winner of a horse race, say, yet we know that some horse will win. Nobody knew exactly what incident would precipitate WWI, yet I sure dozens of historians and statesmen realized it could easily happen. The internet and personal computer phenomena were widely conjectured by science fiction writers long before they became phenomena. The September 11 attacks were considered possible in memos prepared by U.S. security officials long before they took place, as documented in the 9/11 report. Here is a source that lists, with references, many warnings about the nature and timing of possible Al-Qaeda attacks.

In the sciences it is more likely to have Black Swans because of the structured way in which scientific theories are produced and the nature of funding and refereeing of papers: I don't want to get into that bit of the philosophy of science here. However, in the fields of politics and international affairs, the operative principle is not the unpredicted or unpredictable, but rather the marginalization of critics. In the early days of American involvement in Viet Nam, critics could barely find outlets for their point of view; many in official positions were censored, censured, or even fired. People who marched were derided as "hippies" or even attacked by police or construction worker thugs armed with wrenches and pipes. In the early days of the "dot-com" or "S&L" or "housing bubble" crises, there were plenty of nay and doom sayers, but they didn't get the Times and Wall Street Journal play that, say, Alan Greenspan or Larry Summers did. The financial collapse of 2008 was a surprise only because those people who predicted it were marginalized, and the those who thought they were profiting didn't want to hear otherwise.

OK, so here's the point. We have to listen carefully to what people are saying, and begin to compare their words with reality. Sometimes the voices that are hard to detect turn out to be correct more often than the blowhards on the networks or CNN or even the Times. We must punish those who are wrong about important things -- Republican Alan Greenspan, Democrat Robert Rubin (check out his record during the 2008 crisis here), most of the other Republicans, and a lot of mainstream Democrats -- by publicizing their mistakes and shifting them from positions of power. On the other hand, the other two Roberts (Kuttner and Reich) and Paul Krugman have been more nearly correct on important matters of economics -- will Obama appoint them to cabinet positions? Don't hold your breath.

For about 30 years critics have been warning about the dangers of the so-called "Mark I" nuclear reactors designed by GE -- the same kind of reactors that are failing in Japan. The criticism has involved their vulnerable enclosures -- the same type enclosures that are failing at this time. Unfortunately it is now too late for the residents of Sendai and other stricken communities in northeastern Japan, but perhaps these critics of nuclear power should be rewarded for being correct with appointments to agencies and cabinet positions, and those corporate shills who told us all that everything about nuclear power was just fine should be shuffled out (to pasture). (See this article about the so-called Japanese leadership.)

Until we hold people accountable for their predictions and advice, and start to listen to alternate expert voices, we will continue to be more-than-necessarily prone to those vagaries of fate that too often lead to foreseen disasters.


(past criticisms of Mark I reactors)


(weak Japanese leadership and disbelief in industry press releases)

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