Imagine …

Ben Bernanke official portrait.jpgNo, not John Lennon’s dreary nursery rhyme for hippies.

In his memoir of the 2007-2008 banking crisis, The Courage to ActBen Benanke wrote about his surprise when the crisis materialised.

We saw, albeit often imperfectly, most of the pieces of the puzzle. But we failed to understand – “failed to imagine” might be a better phrase – how those pieces would fit together to produce a financial crisis that compared to, and arguably surpassed, the financial crisis that ushered in the Great Depression.

That captures the three essentials of any attempt to foresee a complex future.

  • The pieces
  • The fit
  • Imagination

In any well managed organisation, “the pieces” consist of the established Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and leading measures. Diligent and rigorous criticism of historical data using process behaviour charts allows departures from stability to be identified timeously. A robust and disciplined system of management and escalation enables an agile response when special causes arise.

Of course, “the fit” demands a broader view of the data, recognising interactions between factors and the possibility of non-simple global responses remote from a locally well behaved response surface. As the old adage goes, “Fit locally. Think globally.” This is where the Cardinal Newman principle kicks in.

“The pieces” and “the fit”, taken at their highest, yield a map of historical events with some limited prediction as to how key measures will behave in the future. Yet it is common experience that novel factors persistently invade. The “bow wave” of such events will not fit a recognised pattern where there will be a ready consensus as to meaning, mechanism and action. These are the situations where managers are surprised by rapidly emerging events, only to protest, “We never imagined …”.

Nassim Taleb’s analysis of the financial crisis hinged on such surprises and took him back to the work of British economist G L S Shackle. Shackle had emphasised the importance of imagination in economics. Put at its most basic, any attempt to assign probabilities to future events depends upon the starting point of listing the alternatives that might occur. Statisticians call it the sample space. If we don’t imagine some specific future we won’t bother thinking about the probability that it might come to be. Imagination is crucial to economics but it turns out to be much more pervasive as an engine of improvement that at first is obvious.

Imagination and creativity

Frank Whittle had to imagine the jet engine before he could bring it into being. Alan Turing had to imagine the computer. They were both fortunate in that they were able to test their imagination by construction. It was all realised in a comparatively short period of time. Whittle’s and Turing’s respective imaginations were empirically verified.

What is now proved was once but imagined.

William Blake

Not everyone has had the privilege of seeing their imagination condense into reality within their lifetime. In 1946, Sir George Paget Thomson and Moses Blackman imagined a plentiful source of inexpensive civilian power from nuclear fusion. As of writing, prospects of a successful demonstration seem remote. Frustratingly, as far as I can see, the evidence still refuses to tip the balance as to whether future success is likely or that failure is inevitable.

Something as illusive as imagination can have a testable factual content. As we know, not all tests are conclusive.

Imagination and analysis

Imagination turns out to be essential to something as prosaic as Root Cause Analysis. And essential in a surprising way. Establishing an operative cause of a past event is an essential task in law and engineering. It entails the search for a counterfactual, not what happened but what might have happened to avoid the  regrettable outcome. That is inevitably an exercise in imagination.

In almost any interesting situation there will be multiple imagined pasts. If there is only one then it is time to worry. Sometimes it is straightforward to put our ideas to the test. This is where the Shewhart cycle comes into its own. In other cases we are in the realms of uncomfortable science. Sometimes empirical testing is frustrated because the trail has gone cold.

The issues of counterfactuals, Root Cause Analysis and causation have been explored by psychologists Daniel Kahneman1 and Ruth Byrne2 among others. Reading their research is a corrective to the optimistic view that Root Cause analysis is some sort of inevitably objective process. It is distorted by all sorts of heuristics and biases. Empirical testing is vital, if only through finding some data with borrowing strength.

Imagine a millennium bug

In 1984, Jerome and Marilyn Murray published Computers in Crisis in which they warned of a significant future risk to global infrastructure in telecommunications, energy, transport, finance, health and other domains. It was exactly those areas where engineers had been enthusiastic to exploit software from the earliest days, often against severe constraints of memory and storage. That had led to the frequent use of just two digits to represent a year, “71” for 1971, say. From the 1970s, software became more commonly embedded in devices of all types. As the year 2000 approached, the Murrays envisioned a scenario where the dawn of 1 January 2000 was heralded by multiple system failures where software registers reset to the year 1900, frustrating functions dependent on timing and forcing devices into a fault mode or a graceless degradation. Still worse, systems may simply malfunction abruptly and without warning, the only sensible signal being when human wellbeing was compromised. And the ruinous character of such a threat would be that failure would be inherently simultaneous and global, with safeguarding systems possibly beset with the same defects as the primary devices. It was easy to imagine a calamity.

Risk matrixYou might like to assess that risk yourself (ex ante) by locating it on the Risk Assessment Matrix to the left. It would be a brave analyst who would categorise it as “Low”, I think. Governments and corporations were impressed and embarked on a massive review of legacy software and embedded systems, estimated to have cost around $300 billion at year 2000 prices. A comprehensive upgrade programme was undertaken by nearly all substantial organisations, public and private.

Then, on 1 January 2000, there was no catastrophe. And that caused consternation. The promoters of the risk were accused of having caused massive expenditure and diversion of resources against a contingency of negligible impact. Computer professionals were accused, in terms, of self-serving scare mongering. There were a number of incidents which will not have been considered minor by the people involved. For example, in a British hospital, tests for Down’s syndrome were corrupted by the bug resulting in contra-indicated abortions and births. However, there was no global catastrophe.

This is the locus classicus of a counterfactual. Forecasters imagined a catastrophe. They persuaded others of their vision and the necessity of vast expenditure in order to avoid it. The preventive measures were implemented at great costs. The Catastrophe did not occur. Ex post, the forecasters were disbelieved. The danger had never been real. Even Cassandra would have sympathised.

Critics argued that there had been a small number of relatively minor incidents that would have been addressed most economically on a “fix on failure” basis. Much of this turns out to be a debate about the much neglected column of the risk assessment headed “Detectability”. Where a failure will inflict immediate pain, it is so much more critical as to management and mitigation than a failure that will present the opportunity for detection and protection in advance of a broader loss. Here, forecasting Detectability was just as important as Probability and Consequences in arriving at an economic strategy for management.

It is the fundamental paradox of risk assessment that, where control measures eliminate a risk, it is not obvious whether the benign outcome was caused by the control or whether the risk assessment was just plain wrong and the risk never existed. Another counterfactual. Again, finding some alternative data with borrowing strength can help though it will ever be difficult to build a narrative appealing to a wide population. There are links to some sources of data on the Wikipedia article about the bug. I will leave it to the reader.

Imagine …

Of course it is possible to find this all too difficult and to adopt the Biblical outlook.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11
King James Bible

That is to adopt the outlook of the lady on the level crossing. Risk professionals look for evidence that their approach works.

The other day, I was reading the annual report of the UK Health and Safety Executive (pdf). It shows a steady improvement in the safety of people at work though oddly the report is too coy to say this in terms. The improvement occurs over the period where risk assessment has become ubiquitous in industry. In an individual work activity it will always be difficult to understand whether interventions are being effective. But using the borrowing strength of the overall statistics there is potent evidence that risk assessment works.

References

  1. Kahneman, D & Tversky, A (1979) “The simulation heuristic”, reprinted in Kahneman et al. (1982) Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Cambridge, p201
  2. Byrne, R M J (2007) The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality, MIT Press
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The cyclist on the railway crossing – a total failure of risk perception

This is a shocking video. It shows a cyclist wholly disregarding warnings and safety barriers at a railway crossing in the UK. She evaded death, and the possible derailment of the train, by the thinnest of margins imaginable.

In my mind this raises fundamental questions, not only about risk perception, but also about how we can expect individuals to behave in systems not of their own designing. Such systems, of course, include organisations.

I was always intrigued by John Adams’ anthropological taxonomy of attitudes to risk (taken from his 1995 book Risk).

AdamsTaxonomy1

Adams identifies four attitudes to risk found at large. Each is entirely self-consistent within its own terms. The egalitarian believes that human and natural systems inhabit a precarious equilibrium. Any departure from the sensitive balance will propel the system towards catastrophe. However, the individualist believes the converse, that systems are in general self-correcting. Any disturbance away from repose will be self-limiting and the system will adjust itself back to equilibrium. The hierarchist agrees with the individualist up to a point but only so long as any disturbance remains within scientifically drawn limits. Outside that lies catastrophe. The fatalist believes that outcomes are inherently uncontrollable and indifferent to individual ambition. Worrying about outcomes is not the right criterion for deciding behaviour.

Without an opportunity to interview the cyclist it is difficult to analyse what she was up to. Even then, I think that it would be difficult for her recollection to escape distortion by some post hoc and post-traumatic rationalisation. I think Adams provides some key insights but there is a whole ecology of thoughts that might be interacting here.

Was the cyclist a fatalist resigned to the belief that no matter how she behaved on the road injury, should it come, would be capricious and arbitrary? Time and chance happeneth to them all.

Was she an individualist confident that the crossing had been designed with her safety assured and that no mindfulness on her part was essential to its effectiveness? That would be consistent with Adams’ theory of risk homeostasis. Whenever a process is made safer on our behalf, we have a tendency to increase our own risk-taking so that the overall risk is the same as before. Adams cites the example of seatbelts in motor cars leading to more aggressive driving.

Did the cyclist perceive any risk at all? Wagenaar and Groeneweg (International Journal of Man-Machine Studies 1987 27 587) reviewed something like 100 shipping accidents and came to the conclusion that:

Accidents do not occur because people gamble and lose, they occur because people do not believe that the accident that is about to occur is at all possible.

Why did the cyclist not trust that the bells, flashing lights and barriers had been provided for her own safety by people who had thought about this a lot? The key word here is “trust” and I have blogged about that elsewhere. I feel that there is an emerging theme of trust in bureaucracy. Engineers are not used to mistrust, other than from accountants. I fear that we sometimes assume too easily that anti-establishment instincts are constrained by the instinct for self preservation.

However we analyse it, the cyclist suffered from a near fatal failure of imagination. Imagination is central to risk management, the richer the spectrum of futures anticipated, the more effectively risk management can be designed into a business system. To the extent that our imagination is limited, we are hostage to our agility in responding to signals in the data. That is what the cyclist discovered when she belatedly spotted the train.

Economist G L S Shackle made this point repeatedly, especially in his last book Imagination and the Nature of Choice (1979). Risk management is about getting better at imagining future scenarios but still being able to spot when an unanticipated scenario has emerged, and being excellent at responding efficiently and timeously. That is the big picture of risk identification and risk awareness.

That then leads to the question of how we manage the risks we can see. A fundamental question for any organisation is what sort of risk takers inhabit their ranks? Risk taking is integral to pursuing an enterprise. Each organisation has its own risk profile. It is critical that individual decision makers are aligned to that. Some will have an instinctive affinity for the corporate philosophy. Others can be aligned through regulation, training and leadership. Some others will not respond to guidance. It is the latter category who must only be placed in positions where the organisation knows that it can benefit from their personal risk appetite.

If you think this an isolated incident and that the cyclist doesn’t work for you, you can see more railway crossing incidents here.

The Monty Hall Problem redux

This old chestnut refuses to die and I see that it has turned up again on the BBC website. I have been intending for a while to blog about this so this has given me the excuse. I think that there has been a terrible history of misunderstanding this problem and I want to set down how the confusion comes about. People have mistaken a problem in psychology for a problem in probability.

Here is the classic statement of the problem that appeared in Parade magazine in 1990.

Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door No. 2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?

The rational way of approaching this problem is through Bayes’ theorem. Bayes’ theorem tells us how to update our views as to the probability of events when we have some new information. In this problem I have never seen anyone start from a position other than that, before any doors are opened, no door is more probably hiding the car than the others. I think it is uncontroversial to say that for each door the probability of its hiding the car is 1/3.

Once the host opens door No. 3, we have some more information. We certainly know that the car is not behind door No. 3 but does the host tell us anything else? Bayes’ theorem tells us how to ask the right question. The theorem can be illustrated like this.
Bayes

The probability of observing the new data, if the theory is correct (the green box), is called the likelihood and plays a very important role in statistics.

Without giving the details of the mathematics, Bayes’ theorem leads us to analyse the problem in this way.

MH1

We can work this out arithmetically but, because all three doors were initially equally probable, the matter comes down to deciding which of the two likelihoods is greater.

MH2

So what are the respective probabilities of the host behaving in the way he did? Unfortunately, this is where we run into problems because the answer depends on the tactic that the host was adopting.

And we are not given that in the question.

Consider some of the following possible tactics the host may have adopted.

  1. Open an unopened door hiding a goat, if both unopened doors have goats, choose at random.
  2. If the contestant chooses door 1 (or 2, or 3), always open 3 (or 1, or 2) whether or not it contains a goat.
  3. Open either unopened door at random but only if contestant has chosen box with prize otherwise don’t open a box (the devious strategy, suggested to me by a former girlfriend as the obviously correct answer).
  4. Choose an unopened door at random. If it hides a goat open it. Otherwise do not open a door (not the same as tactic 1).
  5. Open either unopened door at random whether or not it contains a goat

There are many more. All these various tactics lead to different likelihoods.

Tactic Probability that the host revealed a goat at door 3: Rational choice
given that the car is at 1 given that the car is at 2
1

½

1

Switch
2

1

1

No difference
3

½

0

Don’t switch
4

½

½

No difference
5

½

½

No difference

So if we were given this situation in real life we would have to work out which tactic the host was adopting. The problem is presented as though it is a straightforward maths problem but it critically hinges on a problem in psychology. What can we infer from the host’s choice? What is he up to? I think that this leads to people’s discomfort and difficulty. I am aware that even people who start out assuming Tactic 1 struggle but I suspect that somewhere in the back of their minds they cannot rid themselves of the other possibilities. The seeds of doubt have been sown in the way the problem is set.

A participant in the game show would probably have to make a snap judgment about the meaning of the new data. This is the sort of thinking that Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 thinking. It is intuitive, heuristic and terribly bad at coping with novel situations. Fear of the devious strategy may well prevail.

A more ambitious contestant may try to embark on more reflective analytical System 2 thinking about the likely tactic. That would be quite an achievement under pressure. However, anyone with the inclination may have been able to prepare himself with some pre-show analysis. There may be a record of past shows from which the host’s common tactics can be inferred. The production company’s reputation in similar shows may be known. The host may be displaying signs of discomfort or emotional stress, the “tells” relied on by poker players.

There is a lot of data potentially out there. However, that only leads us to another level of statistical, and psychological, inference about the host’s strategy, an inference that itself relies on its own uncertain likelihoods and prior probabilities. And that then leads to the level of behaviour and cognitive psychology and the uncertainties in the fundamental science of human nature. It seems as though, as philosopher Richard Jeffrey put it, “It’s probabilities all the way down”.

Behind all this, it is always useful advice that, having once taken a decision, it should only be revised if there is some genuinely new data that was surprising given our initial thinking.

Economist G L S Shackle long ago lamented that:

… we habitually and, it seems, unthinkingly assume that the problem facing … a business man, is of the same kind as those set in examinations in mathematics, where the candidate unhesitatingly (and justly) takes it for granted that he has been given enough information to construe a satisfactory solution. Where, in real life, are we justified in assuming that we possess ‘enough’ information?