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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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