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).


Hippo Paradoxes

We return to the book, How We Got to Now,  (discussed in “The Hummingbird Effect” blog post) sooner than expected!   A reader of the last post asked if Johnson addressed at all in his book whether the “hummingbird effect” ever led to negative consequences.  Well, he did, as a matter of fact, and this leads straight to the topic of today’s blog.  But first, by way of explanation, a bit more on How We Got to Now.

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

At the outset of his latest book, Johnson maintains that this book will be “resolutely agnostic on these questions of value”; i.e., whether the ripple effects of innovations represent change for the better or worse.  For instance, the invention of air-conditioning allows us to live in deserts, “but at what cost to our water supplies?,” he writes.  He explains that his emphasis in writing the book is primarily to gain insights into how changes come about in the first place.  While acknowledging that we need a value system to decide which “strains” of innovation to encourage, he says he has tried to spell out the range of consequences, good and bad, in his book.  He cites, for instance, the fact that the invention of the vacuum tube helped bring jazz to a mass audience, [but] “it also helped amplify the Nuremberg rallies.”  How one considers the values of different innovations depends on “your own belief systems about politics and social change,” he writes.

Thus, in his chapter on the evolution of the concept of “clean,” which traces the creation of the first comprehensive sewer system in America, Johnson highlights the fact that the idea of bathing at all is a relatively modern idea. Attitudes began to shift in the U.S. and in England early in the 19th century, he said, as the availability of soap and showers helped lay the groundwork for a new paradigm:  the “germ theory of disease.”   With the cleaning business today worth about $80 billion, according to Johnson, another ripple effect of the discovery of clean technologies was the creation of an advertising industry to promote the benefits of cleaning products, such as chlorox.

But all this happened in the short span of the last two centuries and has had many unanticipated consequences, including  booming rates of urbanization. (An article in the December 6 issue of The Economist magazine refers to this phenomenon as “suburbanization.”) From a world of cities of no more than two million people, cities grew to accommodate tens of millions of residents, including the “megacities” of today.  In some cities, the benefits of the paradigm shift embracing cleanliness are evident in lower mortality rates and nearly nonexistent epidemic disease, Johnson writes. But around the world, there are still more than three billion people who lack access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation systems: “in absolute numbers, [therefore], we have gone backward as a species.”

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

Johnson asks whether there has not yet been sufficient innovation to enable the developing world to bypass the big-engineering phase of the developed world that involved building massive public infrastructure to filter and pump water.  So, in this chapter, it’s clear that acceptance of the concept of “clean” has led to benefits even as it has enabled urban sprawl in countries where there are inadequate sanitation facilitations and access to potable water.  Such tensions and paradoxes lead to new requirements for innovation.

  • To step back for a moment from the book, it is clear today that failures to adapt in the largest, poorest of cities–even if they are a half a world away from us–can bring us full-circle, paradoxically: back to dealing with viruses and bacteria against which we have little or no defense.  We need look no further than the front pages of any major newspaper to see that this is the case.  Which brings us to:

“HIPPO Paradoxes”

Edward O. Wilson, one of the world’s most prominent naturalists and biologists, addresses the concept of “HIPPO” (actually an mnemonic, rather than a metaphor) in his latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence.  In order of relative importance, the letters in this acronym (which is one well-known to those in Wilson’s fields but was new to me) represent aspects of the human impact on biodiversity, as in:

H = “Habitat loss”, which he defines as the reduction of habitable area by deforestation, conversion of grassland, and climate change.

I =   “Invasive species,” which refers to alien animals, plants, and even fungi that cause damage to humans or the environment or both when they travel, or are transported, into areas where they are not native.

P =  “Pollution,” which Wilson writes has inflicted most of its damage on fish and other life in freshwater systems but also is the cause of more than four hundred anoxic “dead zones” in marine waters “that receive contaminated water from upstream agricultural land.”

P = “Population growth,” which Wilson writes is “actually a catalytic force of all the other factors.”  He continues:  “Damage will not be so much from the growth itself, which is expected to peak by the end of the century, but rather from the rapid and unstoppable ascent in per capita consumption worldwide as economies improve.”

O = “Overharvesting,” which, Wilson writes, “is best illustrated by the percentage of global decline in the catch of various species of marine pelagic fishes such as tuna and swordfish from the mid-1850s to the present: 96 to 99 percent.  Not only are these species scarcer, but the individual fish caught are on average also smaller.”

In this latest book, Wilson reissues his warning (familiar but no less sobering to readers of his earlier work) that the “remainder of the century will be a bottleneck of growing human impact on the environment and diminishment of biodiversity.”  Wilson is a scientist.  He writes that science “builds and tests competitive hypotheses from partial evidence and imagination in order to generate real knowledge about the world.”  “It is totally committed to fact…[and] cuts paths through the fever swamp of human existence,” he writes.

But, this book is a warning about the limitations of science and technology-driven paths to the future.  Wilson calls for reuniting the humanities with the sciences as the way forward.  He envisions a future where science and technology will be the same almost everywhere–“for every civilized culture, subculture, and person.”  But, “what will continue to evolve and diversify most definitely are the humanities.”  And only by fusing science and the humanities, Wilson suggests, can mankind deal with the coming onslaught of biology-based and technologically-enabled challenges to the “human nature we have inherited.”

Current technological and biological trends create “a dilemma of volitional evolution,” he writes.  In Wilson’s view, the choices ahead require nothing less than re-visting what it means to be human.  “Do we really want to compete biologically with robot technologies by using brain implants and genetically improved intelligence and social behavior?”   More knowledge doesn’t always equal more understanding or situational awareness; for boosting the latter, Wilson states that the humanities are “all-important.”  This is a powerful (if also controversial–can something be powerful without controversy?) book from a lifelong and keen observer of natural life from its most microscopic to (potentially) galactic scales.  It is rich with reminders of the many creative paradoxes of human and natural existence.  We are simply bound to be surprised.


The Zoology of Surprise

Image: Watercolor and ink, by Black Elephant Blog author

From boiling frogs to butterflies, hippos to hummingbirds–and black swans, and now “black elephants”— there is a zoological taxonomy evolving to describe how and why we are surprised. We are surprised when a seemingly random event occurs. The rapid proliferation of a new technology, not even imaginable just a few years ago, surprises us. We can be surprised by the generosity of strangers. Or, we can be surprised by an extreme, and extremely dangerous, event or development.

We are surprised, simply, because we were not expecting x, y, or z to occur. How can so obvious, or even banal, a statement be so fascinating and still so poorly understood? Some surprises we like and look forward to, while others we dread or haven’t imagined.

The reasons for surprise are still being investigated as, for example, in the new book by mathematician, David Hand: The Improbability Principle.  Hand and others explain to us how surprises are inevitable: there are laws of improbability! (The Improbability Principle will be addressed in a future blog post.)

As I have considered the issues of surprise, risk, uncertainty, and probability, colorful metaphors recur. Not everyone appreciates metaphors but I do. The “black swan” made famous by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s groundbreaking book of the same name is a case in point. Sometimes, even if not exactly accurate (as we shall see, black swans are not so rare, depending on where you live), the metaphor helps to sharpen our thinking.

The imagery of surprise taken from the natural world seems evocative of so many things, including how inevitably surprised we are the further removed we become from nature itself. In the worlds of science and mathematics, we have discovered that we actually still have so very much to learn about the interactions and behaviors of natural systems. A recent review of two new books made a distinction between the “Newtonian Moment” and the relatively recently recognized “Quantum Moment,” for instance.

Answers may well prove elusive in this quest but the journey I envision on this blog is going to be surprising in many ways. It will convene ideas from disparate sources and thinkers on the origins of surprise and, relatedly, creativity and innovation. So, I will begin with creating a glossary of the “Zoology of Surprise.”