Misfortune Telling: How to Predict Disasters So We Can Prevent Them

ISIS, Hurricane Katrina, Fukushima—for each of these disastrous developments, there was someone with a bunch of data that no one would listen to.

Richard A. Clarke: My co-author R.P. Eddy and I noticed what we thought was a pattern, that every time there was some great disaster or catastrophe there was usually an investigation after the fact. What went wrong?

And that investigation almost always revealed that there was some person, before the disaster occurred, who said it was going to occur. That person was always an expert. They always had data that was telling them that there was going to be something happening. That person was an outlier. They were an expert but the other experts disagreed. And we wondered, is this a phenomenon that occurs with some regularity?

Because if there are people who can see disasters coming before the rest of us, if we could find them before the disaster that would be enormously valuable, if we could find them and listen to them and pay attention, if we could tell the difference between Chicken Little and a Cassandra.

Cassandra in Greek mythology was a woman cursed by the gods. The curse was that she could accurately see the future. It doesn’t sound so bad until you realize the second part of the curse, which was no one would ever believe her. And because she could see the future and no one was paying attention to her she went mad. So the Cassandras that we looked for were people who accurately predicted some future disaster. Not people who woke up in the middle of the night with a premonition. Not people who predicted all the time and once in a while get it right. But people who saw a specific thing coming. People who had what we call “sentinel intelligence,” the ability to see something over the hill before other people see it.

And we found that pattern and in the first half of the book we go through seven case studies of past events where we found Cassandras who were right, and we tried to learn something about those seven Cassandras from the past. And the second half of the book we look at seven people today who might be Cassandras who are predicting things that might happen in the future. 

So we talk about a failed warning as a Cassandra event. And we try to ask ourselves in the book, why did this Cassandra event happen? We find that there are four overall factors. There is the quality of the Cassandra herself or himself. There are several things about that person that make them a Cassandra or not. And then there’s the audience: a decision maker, a king, a president, a CEO—there are qualities about them that contribute to an event becoming a Cassandra event. Then there’s the issue itself and the qualities about the issue that make a warning relevant to it hard for people to accept. And then the last is the critics, the critics of the person giving the warning, the critics of the Cassandra. What did they say and what did they not say? And in those four column headings—the Cassandra, the decision maker, the issue itself, and the critics—under each of them there are several different criteria. By applying that template to a potential Cassandra event, we think we can begin to tell who’s right and who’s Chicken Little.

So in the book we look at a number of different fields. We look at biology, astronomy, civil engineering, computer science but we also look at foreign policy and economics. And one of the foreign policy issues we look at in the first half of the book was the rise of ISIS. We found a Cassandra in the person of Robert Ford.

Robert Ford is a career foreign service officer and a career Arabist. That means for the United States Foreign Service, the State Department, he’s lived and worked for decades in countries in the Middle East. He speaks Arabic like a native in a number of different dialects. He can walk onto the street of almost any Arab city and go into any souk and hear what the locals are saying and have a dialogue with them.

He became our Ambassador to Damascus before the civil war broke out there. And when he got there, just as the Arab Spring was percolating in other countries, Robert Ford began to realize that there was a vacuum, that unless the United States stepped in and helped the opposition to President Assad in Damascus that somebody else would. And that somebody else, he posited, would be a new terrorist organization. That it would rise up not only in Syria against President Assad as part of the Arab Spring but it would also rise up in Iraq, where the Shia government was making it very difficult for the Sunnis in Iraq.

And so what Robert Ford said would happen would be that, for the first time in history, terrorists would own a large chunk of territory bigger than many nations. And that in that territory would be very large cities—cities of over a million people in population. And he therefore urged President Obama to do something to head this off; have the United States fill the vacuum by giving serious amounts of training and equipment to the opposition in Syria.

And he wasn’t listened to. In part, he wasn’t listened to because his prediction was outlandish. The creation of a terrorist state with controlling cities? That had never happened. This is one of the things we find over and over again, that our Cassandras are rejected because they’re predicting things that had never happened before. And we call it “first occurrence syndrome”.
No terrorist group had ever built a country, run cities. And therefore, implicitly, decision makers in Washington thought, “He’s exaggerating. He’s being hyperbolic. This can’t possibly happen.” Why? Because it had never happened before. Now, we know that throughout history things happen for the first time. Things that have never happened before are what we study in history. The old days, we remember dates in history—1492, 1066, 1776.

These were all dates when things happened of significance that had never happened before. So decision makers ought to know that just because something hasn’t happened before it doesn’t mean it won’t. But implicitly, decision-makers hearing Robert Ford and thinking about things that have never happened before, they think they have good justification for ignoring a prediction if it’s a prediction of an initial occurrence syndrome.

And then there’s the problem of all the other experts. When Ford’s analysis was shared with trusted Middle Eastern allies, like Israel, like Jordan, people who have expertise in the Middle East like the British and the Germans, they all didn’t see it. Like so many of our Cassandras, Ambassador Robert Ford saw something first. And in the amount of time it took for everybody to catch up with him it was too late. By the time the experts saw what he saw, ISIS had come into existence, had taken over large cities and had created a nation state.

The same phenomenon that we saw with Robert Ford applied to people involved prior to Katrina, in predicting that the dams in New Orleans would burst someday if there were a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. The Cassandra we found in New Orleans was fired for making a prediction that the city would flood.

In the case of Fukushima in Japan, four nuclear reactors melted down and contaminated a huge swathe of territory and cost the Japanese government billions of dollars. But yet, before those plants were built there was someone who said, “If you build it here there will be a tsunami someday, and the plants will be destroyed and melt down.” And that person testified in open hearings and was ignored.

So we found in many, many cases, all of these Cassandras said the same thing. They said, “I don’t want this to happen. I don’t want to be accurate. I want to be proven wrong. Here is my data. Tell me what’s wrong with my data.” And no one could.

Noticing a pattern emerge in the aftermath of some of the worst catastrophes in recent years—like Hurricane Katrina, Fukushima, and the formation of ISIS—global security experts Richard A. Clarke and R.P. Eddy wrote a book called Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes. It is an historical investigation and instructive framework that can be used to predict disasters before they occur. How can they do that? Well, the predictions already exist, it's just that no-one is listening. These people making the predictions—who are always experts with strong data to support their claim, but who are dismissed by other experts—are known as 'Cassandras' (a name taken from Greek mythology). By sifting through history to find past Cassandras, they have developed a system to know which predictions are false alarms, and which are absolutely critical to humanity's future. Richard A. Clarke and R.P. Eddy's new book is Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes.


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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

Photo credit: Adrian Swancar on Unsplash
Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.

Lapses

Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.