The Fallacy of Worst Case Scenarios

Hurricane Sandy has led to some pretty foolish thinking. Just the other night some high school classmates were involved in some dreary silliness on Facebook about what might have caused Noah’s flood. One, a proud climate change denier and I’m sure strong Christian, opined that perhaps global warming back then was caused by dinosaur farts. (I told you it was dreary.)

Hard to take that conversation seriously but there are other statements in the wake of Hurricane Sandy that strike me almost as inane. Several times I’ve heard officials say some version of “no one thought something like this could happen.” What a strange excuse that! First, of course, the Discovery and National Geographic channels have made some decent money the past decade entertaining disaster groupies with exactly how something like this could happen. Second, anticipatory thinking is an essential element of managing and leading. If you can’t generate vision well at least you might be able to anticipate.

So I think what people really mean  by that statement is that no one wanted to think about the scenario that just happened. No doubt they put it in the category of Worst Case scenario. Once you assign a possible event to the category of worst case scenario you are at risk of succumbing to a dangerous fallacy, one I saw with some regularity in government. To wit: the assumption that “worst case scenario” and “unlikely” are synonyms.

Think back on some of the meetings you’ve attended. Some Cassandra in the room starts warning of a frightful worst case scenario. Some other person, determined to avoid excess ruffling, says: “Oh you’re overreacting. That’s just a worst case scenario!” What they are also saying, of course, is “that’s very unlikely.”

(I am reminded here of something I once heard former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates say. Because he was a notorious “worst case” thinker he was often accused of being a Cassandra–the prophet who predicted the fall of Troy. At which point he would remind us that “Cassandra was right!”)

Severity of impact and likelihood are independent variables. It is entirely possible for a worst case scenario to be quite feasible, if not even probable. But the conflation of worst case with unlikely is quite common and potentially catastrophic. Unfortunately, things that we find unimaginable have a nasty way of becoming inevitable.

I imagine another factor was at play here, one for which I find more sympathy. When they say that they didn’t think something like Hurricane Sandy could happen, what they also might mean is that they didn’t believe the threat was likely enough to justify taking expensive preventative actions given other budget priorities. This strikes me as a much more honest statement and reflects a judgment that public officials must make on a regular basis. Nevertheless, consideration of “likelihood” must still be made independently of any other variable. We humans have a tendency to think we are bulletproof and to assume that bad things are unlikely to happen to us. When in fact the art of living, of government, of leadership in any sector is best captured by how well we deal with calamities.
For those who can, I am linking here to the donation form for AmeriCares, a charity I myself support.

Donate Now.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s