Why we're always surprised

Among the hundreds of thousands of protesters jamming Cairo's Tahrir Square last week to demand the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was 37-year-old Basel Ramsis.

"No one would have imagined a week before that this would happen in Egypt,'' Ramsis told the New York Times.

But should it have been hard to imagine?

For years, signs of turmoil have been brewing in Egypt, an impoverished police state run by an 82-year- old dictator who has been in power longer than many Egyptians have been alive. But the fact that Egypt is part of the Arab world — where even truly terrible rulers hang on for decades — helped foster a global mind-set in which the possibility of revolution seemed as unthinkable as the crumbling of the Pyramids.

It's the same kind of mind-set that left us surprised when housing prices collapsed. How could they fall when they'd always gone up?

"It's a habit — we expect everything to be the same tomorrow or the next day,'' says George Burt, a Scottish researcher and author of the 2007 study Why Are We Surprised at Surprises? "People form habits and

routines and the habits and routines help them see or, equally, make them blind.''

"That's on an individual level,'' Burt continues. "On an institutional level'' — in businesses, in government — "there are a lot of systems in place but we don't spend a lot of time understanding how these systems work or interconnect. We tend to see only the tip of the iceberg. It's when you go below the iceberg you begin to really see the factors that drive events, that give causal explanations behind the surprise.''

In other words: We're surprised by some events that arguably should be foreseeable.

Take the 1986 Challenger disaster. Almost every American alive at the time remembers their surprise and horror on hearing that the space shuttle had burst apart, killing all seven aboard.

But as the investigations began, evidence emerged that the shuttle program was an accident waiting to happen.

NASA managers had known for almost a decade that the design of the solid rocket boosters contained a potentially fatal law but had failed to adequately address it. They also disregarded warnings about the danger of launching that morning in frosty weather.

One member of the Presidential Commission on the Challenger accident — renowned physicist Richard Feynman — was so concerned about NASA's safety culture, or lack of it, that he threatened to remove his name from the panel's final report unless he could add his own observations.

Noting that NASA managers estimated a thousand times lower probability of shuttle failures than engineers did, Feynman asked: "Why do we find such an enormous disparity? It would appear that for whatever purpose, be it for internal or external consumption, the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product, to the point of fantasy.''

Feynman's worries about the shuttle — he called it a "dangerous machine'' — would be realized 17 years later when Columbia disintegrated on re-entry, killing another seven astronauts.

Once again, the world was surprised and shocked. But once again, the biggest surprise was that NASA had long known about a problem — in this case, debris damaging the shuttle's heat shield — yet had failed to correct it.

Listening to Cassandra

On Sept. 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. It marked the end of a legendary investment bank and the start of a global financial crisis.

Lehman had invested heavily in housing-related assets that were sinking in value as people began to realize the folly of making loans to millions of borrowers who couldn't afford them.

Screaming headlines — "World Markets Plunge on Fears of U.S. Slowdown'' — reflected the surprise with which much of us absorbed the news of a possible Great Depression II.

Yet anyone who had paid attention to a few prescient souls could have seen it coming. Two years earlier, while condos in Florida and houses in Las Vegas were fetching ridiculous prices, New York University professor Nouriel Roubini addressed fellow economists at the International Monetary Fund.

Roubini warned that "the United States was likely to face a once-in-a-lifetime housing bust, an oil shock, sharply declining consumer confidence and, ultimately, a deep recession,'' according to a profile in the New York Times Magazine. "He laid out a bleak sequence of events: homeowners defaulting on mortgages, trillions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities unraveling worldwide and the global financial system shuddering to a halt.''

Virtually all of Roubini's predictions came true. But some remain unimpressed.

"My problem with him is that he predicted 10 out of the last three crises,'' says Richard Cooper, a professor of international economics at Harvard. "He sees problems around every corner; he's made a career out of it.''

Cooper has had his own experience trying to forecast the future in hopes of avoiding rude surprises.

In the mid 1990s, while he was chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the group projected what the world would look like in 2010. The idea was to identify trends that could affect U.S. defense policy.

The most accurate forecasts tended to be the most obvious: A greater demand for energy as the Chinese and Indian economies grew. A freer flow of information thanks to the communications revolution.

But Global Trends 2010 missed the mark in some big ways. It failed to foresee a terror attack on the scale of the Sept. 11 hijackings. There's no Palestinian state, as it predicted. And there's no lessening of tension on the Korean peninsula.

As the intelligence community's center for strategic thinking, the council still prepares long-term forecasts. But the most recent one, for 2025, used a concept that proponents say encourages the kind of creative thinking that wouldn't leave us so surprised by events like 9/11, the housing crash or the Arab protests.

It's called scenario planning.

Planning for 'What If?'

Scenario planning had its roots in classic military strategizing and was adapted for business use in the 1960s.

In 1973, millions of Americans were surprised to find themselves in milelong gas lines, the result of an oil embargo by Arab oil producers angry at U.S. support for Israel in that year's Mideast war. But Royal Dutch/Shell's use of scenario planning helped it anticipate the '73 oil shock and improve its competitive position in the oil glut that followed.

The idea of scenario planning is not to predict the future but to describe possible scenarios and how to deal with them. As the world has become a more uncertain place, scenario planning has gained in popularity.

"When conditions are stable it's easier to live with momentum and the projections we normally use,'' George S. Day, a University of Pennsylvania professor, said in a 2007 article. "The challenge is that when things are very uncertain we need to think differently because what we project based on current momentum may be the least likely outcome. We need to start thinking about unthinkable scenarios.''

Before Sept. 11, 2001, it seemed unthinkable to anyone in the U.S. government that terrorists could hijack big passenger jets without guns or bombs. Al-Qaida, on the other hand, thought outside the box — using box cutters when bombs proved impossible, shoes and underwear when box cutters were banned.

We were surprised every time.

Many academics are uncomfortable with scenario planning because it lacks the intellectual discipline of baseline projections that start with a known figure — say a country's current population — and project from there. In scenario planning, how do you make sure you're choosing the right scenarios?

But the Nation Intelligence Council was convinced enough of the merits to come up with four dramatic scenarios that might occur in 2025.

Among them: a "World without the West,'' as the United States and Europe, battered by years in Afghanistan and other hotspots, retreat from the global stage.

Knowing the local situation

While government and business planners haven't done a particularly good job of preparing us for "surprises,'' journalists also share some of the blame.

The invasion of Iraq was full of surprises — the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the strength of the insurgency, the horrific death toll.

And part of the reason they were surprised is that some in the media based their preinvasion stories on information from government officials and Iraqi expatriates that turned out to be wrong.

"I think there is a tendency among journalists to become enamored of their sources and we begin to stop asking the really tough questions of people we're relying on to tell us things,'' says Butch Ward, managing director of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the St. Petersburg Times.

Ward also notes that many news organizations have reduced or eliminated their foreign bureaus, resulting in fewer "feet on the ground.''

"I think that's a real problem,'' he says. "You are making it less likely that you will see more subtle signs of trouble developing on any issue if you don't have anybody watching."'

Though the public has more alternative sources of information than at any time in history — think blogs, Facebook, Twitter — Cooper of Harvard says all of us need to do a better job of questioning what we hear and read.

"You should treat every alleged fact and every serious proposition with a certain degree of skepticism.''

If more of us did that, the results could truly be surprising.

Times researchers Natalie Watson and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Challenger

"Official management claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less (than engineers do). One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers.''

Physicist Richard Feynman,

member of the presidential commission investigating the 1986 Challenger accident, in personal observations on the shuttle's reliability

Berlin Wall

"Most of the Sovietologists ... were left-liberal in their politics, an orientation that undermined their capacity to accept the view that economic statism, planning, socialist incentives would not work.''

Seymour Martin Lipset and Gyorgy Bence,

authors of Anticipation of the Failure of Communism, 1994

9/11 attacks

"It was not a failure of intelligence, it was a failure of imagination. We could have had perfect intelligence on all the key pieces of 9/11 but the fact is we lacked — for the very best of reasons — people with evil enough imaginations to put those pieces together and realize that 19 young men were going to hijack four airplanes for suicide attacks against our national symbols and kill as many innocent civilians as they could, for no stated reason at all.''

Thomas L. Friedman,

New York Times columnist

Challenger

"Official management claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less (than engineers do). One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers. For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.''

Physicist Richard Feynman,

member of Presidental Commission onf the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, in personal observations on the reliability of the shuttle.

Berlin Wall

"Most of the Sovietologists...were left-liberal in their politics, an orientation that undermined their capacity to accept the view that economic statism, planning, socialist incentives would not work. They were also for the most part ignorant of, or ignored, the basic Markish formulation that it is impossible to build socialism in impoverished societies.''

Seymour Martin Lipset and Gyorgy Bence,

authors of Anticipation of the Failure of Communism, 1994.

9/11 attacks

"It was not a failure of intelligence, it was a failure of imagination. We could have had perfect intelligence on all the key pieces of 9/11, but the fact is we lacked -- for the very best of reasons -- people with evil enough imaginations to put those pieces together and realize that 19 young men were going to hijack four airplanes for suicide attacks against our national symbols and kill as many innocent civilians as they could, for no stated reason at all.'' -

Thomas L. Friedman,

New York Times columnist

Why we're always surprised 02/03/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 7:33pm]

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