Innovation, Risk, Uncertainty

Understanding Improbability


Image: (Public Broadcasting Station) Twin sisters, born in China, meet their new adoptive mothers who did not know each other and initially did not know the babies were twins. On that first day of acquaintance, the infants are soon dressed by their adoptive parents in clothes from their new homes respectively in Norway and in the U.S.: identical red-checked gingham dresses.

As 2014 draws to a close, it is impossible to ignore how remarkable a year it’s been in so many ways. Whether “mysterious”, “miraculous”, or “magical”–or tragic, terrifying, or tremendous–there have been so many surprising twists and turns, and these are merely the ones we know about.

Since this blog is about investigating the roots of how we are surprised, it seems fitting to note that this year has been one of unexpected and “rare” events.  Our minds seek patterns as a way of making sense of these developments–seeing similarities and expecting correlations to help us understand what is going on–but sometimes (often?) our innate pattern-making sensibilities mislead us. Our misplaced confidence in our understanding leads us to expect outcomes that turn out, in hindsight, to have been unrealistic.

So, it bears asking:  what is the nature of such surprises?  Why are experts proving so unimaginative (often admitting as much) at anticipating the scale of potential disasters, and does this mean that they are equally impoverished in imagining how large-scale breakthroughs (or “good surprises”)  in the human condition could occur?  What are the implications of a radically more interconnected globe and the rates and scale of the surprises we face? Shall we careen from one unexpected event to the other, temporarily struck dumb by the suddenness and scale (and typically cost–economically and otherwise) of the turn of events? Or, are some of the surprises that are real crises actually avoidable, as the scientist who originally discovered the Ebola virus says this year’s Ebola crisis was?  Are surprises similar in type or are there different sorts of surprises; that is, different in ways other than normative expectations of “good” or “bad?”  Are there ways to make more fortunate surprises more commonplace?   Clearly not only quality of life but actual lives are at stake in these problems.  These are some of the questions future blog posts here will pursue.

In 2014, there were many unexplained coincidences and developments, whether on the scale of individuals going about their daily lives or on the stages of geopolitics, global travel, or global public health. What are the chances, for instance, of one commercial passenger jet going missing, with all its passengers and crew aboard, in a sad incident still unexplained nine months later? Furthermore, what is the chance that three passenger airliners–two of them from the same Malaysian airline company, and all three from Malaysia, would be involved in rare disasters in the same year–as it appears that another airliner has met a tragic end this very week?

Similarly, many were surprised when Russian forces of some sort moved into Crimea earlier this year, and still more surprised a couple months later when a hybrid group of publicly virtually unknown extremists swiftly took control of large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.  Most everyone was surprised by the rapid drop in oil prices in recent months. (And what surprises might be in store because of this?)

As surprising–devastatingly so–has been the rapid spread of the Ebola virus.  Known to be deadly, this virus had always been–before now, that is–stopped in its tracks in dozens of previous outbreaks in relatively remote African villages.  (In a just published article in the New York Times, How Ebola Roared Back, ” the results of an investigation undertaken by that newspaper show how a series of missteps by health experts and organizations since May, 2014 contributed to this otherwise avoidable catastrophe. )

As so often happens with surprises, the experts were caught off-guard by this one.  There were so many things that were different about it;  as a result, experts were overconfident in their assessment last May that the Ebola crisis was abating.  Previously, Ebola outbreaks had occurred in remote villages in Central and East Africa, where the virus could be surrounded and isolated. (Ebola had not previously occurred in Western Africa.)  All told, these previous outbreaks had killed 1,590 people over four decades, only a fifth of the toll of the epidemic still unfolding across West Africa, according to the just-published NYT article. According to Dr. Petr Piot, the scientist who originally discovered the Ebola virus in the 1970s,  and a colleague, Dr. Jeremy J. Farrar, in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine in September 2014, “The Ebola Crisis:  Immediate Action, Ongoing Strategy” (and cited in the aforementioned NYT article),  this year’s outbreak can be attributed not to unique characteristics of the virus but instead it is more likely to be:

“…a result of the combination of dysfunctional health systems, international indifference, high population mobility, local customs, densely populated capitals, and lack of trust in authorities [in the Ebola-infected nations] after years of armed conflict. Perhaps most important, Ebola has reached the point where it could establish itself as an endemic infection because of a highly inadequate and late global response [emphasis added].”

Image:  Ebola orphan approximately 4 years old (

Image: Ebola orphan approximately 4 years old (

Whatever the issue, it seems the experts were among the most surprised; x, y, or z wasn’t supposed to behave this way.  In an age in which we can program our smartphones to “Find My Phone” in case we misplace them, or microchip our pets in case they go missing, it is hard for the average person (and apparently also the experts)  to understand how a passenger jet with nearly 300 people aboard can remain lost almost a year after it went missing, or a known virus can overtake several nations in a matter of weeks.  Are there lessons that can be learned from these developments?  Whose problem is it to learn them?

Memories of improbable events, such as the terrible tsunami in 2004, also show how surprises can condition us–depending on our resources and level of political will and commitment–to deal better with future surprises. No one expected a tsunami on the scale of the one that occurred on December 26, 2004, exactly one decade ago last week.  Experts did not expect it.  Tsunamis are the deadliest of natural disasters and the one that hit the Indian Ocean region ten years ago contained energy equivalent to 10,000 Hiroshima bombs, according to a BBC  article, “Science Still Learning How to Limit Tsunami Misery” from a few days ago.  Just as in the case of West Africa this year, the vulnerability of the densely-populated areas in the path of the disaster was a factor in the tsunami’s devastating impact, including the loss of 230,000 people in more than 14 countries.

Years later, when an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011, lessons from the earlier tragedy helped mitigate but did not eliminate the resulting devastation.  No one had imagined a magnitude 9 earthquake nor unexpectedly high (30 meters) waves; designated refuge areas on higher ground were inundated as a result. By this time, however, Indonesia had a better approach than Japan, according to the BBC article, thanks to a collaboration with Germany called the GITEWS (the German-Indonesian Tsunami Early Warning System).

Image:  Washington Post

Image: Washington Post

On the eve of a New Year, those of us unaffected directly by such tragedies understandably would prefer not to think about them.   Fortunately, the desire to make sense out of events, whether tragic or marvelous, suggests that we have the capacity to eventually learn what it takes to limit the scale of disasters and maximize the likelihood of creative breakthroughs. The outset of a new year seems, therefore, a fitting time to realize how highly improbable events are not always, or even often, of the tragic variety; instead, they are the serendipitous moments that occur to each of us.  They could even be the breakthroughs that enable us to be better prepared for inevitable misfortunes and disasters.

As the subject of this blog is surprise, and not only bad surprises, it seems important to investigate the role that surprise, or at least uncertainty, plays in life. There is, for instance, the story told in a PBS special released this fall of identical twin sisters born in China, and designated to different adoptive parents–one couple from Norway and another from the United States, who were not told that the girls were twins.  When the two sets of parents went to pick up their new infant daughters on the same day at the same adoption center in China, each  couple brought with them an identical gingham dress for their baby’s first day in their respective families.  (The two couples suspected in that first meeting, however, that the babies were twins and later were able to confirm this; they continue to arrange for reunions of the biological sisters.)  And just last week, there was the story of a priceless heirloom engagement ring lost on the busy streets of Washington, D.C.–and then improbably found and (even more improbably) returned to its owner!

As the improbable year of 2014 gives way to a new year of surprises–with a toast held high for many more such happy surprises, and more rapid and effective global coordination for the tragic ones–future blog posts will examine more closely how improbably probable improbability is. Coming up: a look at the new book, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day., by British mathematician and former president of the Royal Statistical Society, Dr. David Hand. And a close look at how insights and creative breakthroughs occur, drawing especially on the work of a senior scientist, psychologist, and expert on “adaptive decision-making,” Dr. Gary Klein, in his book, Seeing What Others Don’t:  The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight (2013).


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