2009/11/16

Worst case scenarios and preparations

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For reasons unknown to me it's quite popular among hawkish people to assume worst cases. It works basically like this; they make up an extremely unlikely fantasy, sh*# in their pants about that fantasy (or pretend it), infect other (chicken) hawks with their diarrhea, the fantasy is being presented as a plausible and serious scenario in several dozen publications, radio and TV shows and after about a hundred times it's established as a serious, self-evident threat.


Well, you're supposed to learn (while becoming an adult) that life is full of acceptable and unavoidable risks.

Nevertheless, the infectious fear of worst case fantasies is too often not being contained as well as necessary. The fear often succeeds in attracting enough attention to redirect public funds into countermeasures (or what's being sold to the public as countermeasures). These costs of the combat against fantasies of easily scared people sum up to many billion € and USD annually.

Being easily scared by fantasy scenarios is OK - embarrassing, but OK. So what's my point?

My point is that there's supposed to be a rational method for the allocation of funds for preventive action.

My point is also that this rational and generally applicable method
- albeit being human-made and therefore imperfect - would not allow for the expense of such sums on fantasy threats if applied to the best of our abilities.

This rational method is based on the statistical concept called "expectation value".

In probability theory and statistics, the expected value (or expectation value, or mathematical expectation, or mean, or first moment) of a random variable is the integral of the random variable with respect to its probability measure.
(Wikipedia)

The application of this rational concept means that the relevance of a scenario is the product of its severity and its probability. An extremely unlikely "worst case" scenario is not more relevant than a small everyday problem". A one in 100,000 chance of dying in a car crash is no less problematic than a 1 in twenty million chance of dying with 199 others (200 total; 200*100k=20M) in an aircraft crash. Both scenarios are of exactly identical relevance to your nation.

The easily scared worst case doomsayer hawks want us to stare at (their favourite) worst cases, and to prepare primarily against their pet scenarios. They do often openly pretend that this is the right thing to do and important.

It's not the right thing to do unless their worst case has a large enough probability. In fact, to follow their lead would mean to neglect preparations against less dramatic but much more likely threats and in the end we would most likely end up suffering more.


The fascination with dramatic worst cases is powerful and has charmed many people, though. Most of them pretend that their view makes sense and that their approach is a sensible one, even the only right one. In short: They pretend to have a proper method of how to properly react to a multitude of troubles (threats).

I say: They have no method. Instead, they just use irrational feelings (or they're just greedy/attention whores). To stare at their favourite "worst case" scenario and to pretend that it deserves more attention than any other scenario is completely unsystematic.

Let's dispel the charm the hard way:

A hawk says that we should prepare against a nuclear attack - maybe an EMP attack that could supposedly kill the electronics of an entire continent. Scary enough to be a reasonable hawk fantasy? Yes, this theme has been sporadically popular for nearly thirty years. So the conclusion of said hawk is to prepare against this eventuality - he wouldn't argue against spending billions on preventive measures or against going to war in order to disarm a candidate for aggression in time.


The problem is simple; his approach is utterly unsystematic. The evidence: I have a better fantasy.
Aliens will invade us, enslave us, eat us alive - and the only way of defeating them will be the use of enormous amounts of faeces bacteria.

My fantasy is obviously scarier, so his was no worst case scenario at all. Mine is decidedly worse. Does my scenario deserve the spending of billions of USD and € annually for huge faeces bacteria farms?

No. That's would be utterly idiotic.
Why? Because my scenario - albeit not entirely impossible - is extremely improbable.

The reason for why we shouldn't spend fortunes on farming faeces bacteria is therefore probability.

That's the exact same factor that the worst case hawks (tend to) ignore (or only pay lip service to). And this is the reason why their logic fails, why their approach is unsystematic, arbitrary and unsound.

It's fine to lay out threats, even terrible scenarios.

It's NOT OK to ignore their probability.

Sven Ortmann

P.S.: Maybe you think that there's no such stupid hawk around and I pulled this out of somewhere. Just remember my words next time you read about pig flu, China, EMP, Iran, Somalia, AQ, Taliban, Afghanistan, some convicted murder on the loose or anything else scary in the news or in national security or health texts.
Then compare that problem to the probability that people you know will die of less spectacular reasons - like smoking or falling from a ladder.

By the way; the EMP thing is for real, but there's really not much that we could do about it - not much short of a crusade world war against all possible nuke users. The problem existed already during the Cold War and was obviously tolerable back then when it was a much less improbable scenario.
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7 comments:

  1. Heh. I agree with you completely, just that I don't see the application of this logic in today's defense environment. You can point and shout till blue in the face, and the process relentlessly grinds on. It's a sad state of affairs.

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  2. The extent of the problem varies. Some countries have worse policies than others.

    Small countries tend to have few pundits and therefore a small pool of potential hawks, and countries with few options or a decade-old tradition of low activity in conflicts tend to get less agitated as well.

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  3. I think you're too lenient on the hawks who jump and scream at unlikely threats. It's not that they're stupid enough to be worried about such threats(usually), it's mostly that they have ulterior motives for demanding countermeasures against such threats. The defence industry and the military itself always wants more money and power, often for personal and career reasons, but also for strategic reasons. Exaggeration of threats is a good way to get these things, or at least a good public cover.

    History is littered with examples, one of the most recent and blatant was the Iraq War.

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  4. I totally agree. The problem is that, sadly, fear works.
    Big Pharma often acts in the same way the chickenhawks you describe here…

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  5. We tend to focus on man-made threats, things which thrill our imagination, and that ironically oftentimes can be contained and deterred rather than defeated.

    But in doing so we neglect to prepare for "natural" disasters of all kinds. These being unavoidable, mitigation is usually the only policy available.

    The EMP scenario is a case in point, and infinitely less likely than a Super Solarstorm such as that which happened 1859. From evidence in ice, storms at that magnitude happens about every 500 years, and are thus inevitable in a way EMP-bombs are not.

    http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2008/06may_carringtonflare.htm

    Where that to happen today I couldn't start imagining the consequences, and points to some sort of early warning system such as the one being installed in the pacific to warn for Tsunamis.

    Preparing society for every possible natural event is of course impossible, but mitigation an warning devices needn't be. Especially since they cost peanuts compared to our collective defense budgets.

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  6. The danger of constantly looking for problems and weaknesses in one's own system is you begin to see too see too much. This cuts both ways. Has anyone noticed that it's always a matter of enemies from without... or within?

    None of these awful scenarios is impossible. Unlikely, yes. Impossible, no. It might seem like a wonderful idea to create an enemy like "Hawks" and the even more despicable "Chicken Hawks", but it's nothing more than doing what many accuse them of doing.

    The tone of the article was excellent because it's reasonable while defending against every known threat is not reasonable at all. I see no reason to doubt the motives of those men who make up the other side. It might be much more helpful to confront them as concerned citizens, not enemies.

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  7. I'm in UK and I think our gov does not give enough thought to ' unlikely ' natural or man made situations .
    Eg . Merging all the area hospitals into one superhospital , entry to all departments through one atrium . Pulling the vacated hospitals down .
    All-electric trains , running off overtrack wires.
    No toilets at underground ( subway ) stations .
    Selling off old WW2 bunkers for trash-fill .
    Centralising Police , Fire , Ambulance stations and selling off the peripherals.
    Schools without swimming pools .
    Closing Post offices .
    Never cleaning municipal storm drains.
    Banning boating on rivers .

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