Home > Books and culture > Draft Review of Cerulo

Draft Review of Cerulo

December 15th, 2006

My draft review of Karen Cerulo


“Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst” (Karen A. Cerulo)

is over the fold. Comments much appreciated

In late August 2005, I was visiting the United States, and experienced, along with hundreds of millions of Americans, a growing sense of disbelief and outrage at the governmental response to the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. This was a disaster that was both predictable and regularly predicted, yet days after it struck the combined efforts of federal, state and local governments were insufficient to evacuate thousands left homeless and in desperate straits. Similarly, as has now become evident, the US government had received regular warnings of the likelihood of an attack like that of September 11, 2001, but did little or nothing to prevent such an attack.

The lack of coherent planning evident with Katrina raised all sorts of issues of race, class, partisan politics and ideology, but the most striking impression was one of bafflement. It seemed that, despite ample warning of the potential disaster, those responsible never saw it coming. Much the same could be said of 9/11.

Karen Cerulo in a book aptly titled Never Saw It Coming:Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst argues that the failure to prepare for disaster is not a matter of individual incompetence or fecklessness. Rather she argues it reflects a bias towards optimism that is deeply embedded in American culture.

Cerulo’s argument centres on the concept of ‘positive asymmetry’, in which best case outcomes are seen as more representative or normal than worst case outcomes. Positive asymmetry is closely tied to core American cultural values, most obviously ‘positive thinking’. The injunctions to ‘be all that you can be’ and ‘expect the best’ lead inevitably to collective miscalculations.

Cerulo argues that this positive asymmetry is evident both in individual decisions and in the decisions of small and large groups. In all cases, she suggests, the asymmetry is produced by adherence to cultural norms. On the other hand, Cerulo argues that deviant groups are treated with the opposite asymmetry, with an undue focus on negatives.

Cerulo’s book may be located as part of an emerging American literature in support of pessimism. Clearly, this literature is driven in part by a reaction against the disastrous outcomes of recent American over-optimism. Whereas Joshua Dienstag’s Pessimism:Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit presented a philosophical case for pessimism, Cerulo’s argument is sociological. Compared to Dienstag, Cerulo’s argument is more specific to the United States, but both are ultimately arguing against optimistic and progressivist traditions derived from the Enlightenment.

The most important distinction between Dienstag and Cerulo is that Cerulo’s sociological perspective leaves open the possibility of structural changes in social institutions that would eliminate or reduce positive asymmetry. Cerulo identifies some professional cultures which she says are less prone to positive asymmetry (notably public health and information technology professionals) and notes some apparent success stories in preparing for the worst, such as SARS and Y2K.

Demonstrating that no-one can truly escape their cultural background, Cerulo ends on a characteristically American note of hope and exhortation, saying that ‘we can do better’ and ‘we would truly be remiss if we simply failed to try’.

In the abstract Cerulo’s argument seems convincing, and there is plenty of evidence to support it. But there is lots of room for disagreement over details..

Cerulo criticizes the authors of baby-care manuals for devoting insufficient space to developmental disorders and other things that might go wrong and for following up such information with reassurances that serious problems are unlikely. She doesn’t, however, suggest any useful improvements.

Indeed, Cerulo is particularly critical of the most widely-used response to concerns about developmental abnormalities, amniocentesis, pointing out that the risks of this procedure outweigh the potential benefits in many cases, and criticising writers on the topic for downplaying these risks. One gets the feeling that the writers of these books can’t win. If they play down the risks, they are accused of not preparing for the worst case, but if they play them up they run the risk that more expectant parents will seek to allay their concerns through medical procedures that carry their own risks.

More strikingly, one of Cerulo’s examples of unfair treatment of deviant groups is the Heaven’s Gate cult which, as she states believed that they would be removed from the Earth by a spaceship following the comet Hale-Bopp, their true home’. As she says, most reporting of the group treated it as the epitome of the lunatic fringe. But readers willing to go to the endnotes will learn that this treatment might be explained in part by the fact that in order to hasten their arrival in heaven, all thirty-nine members of the group engaged in a mass suicide. (While I’m on this subject, is there any excuse for persevering with endnotes? If the material is of too little interest to be included in the main text or in footnotes, couldn’t it be placed in a supporting website or omitted altogether).

Another surprising claim is that “positive asymmetry� is demonstrated by the fact that, in theology and art, Heaven is given a detailed and appealing description, while hell is described only in vague and non-specific terms.On the contrary one of the standard criticisms of religious art is that Hell and the Devil are made much more interesting than Heaven and Hell, notable examples including Dante and Milton.

On the other side of the coin, Cerulo cites as an example of successful preparedness the massive Y2K remediation effort undertaken in the United States, and devotes quite a few pages to a largely uncritical presentation of the ‘official’ view that the remediation effort prevented an otherwise inevitable disaster.

The official view doesn’t stand up well to a close examination of the evidence, which suggests that the severity of the problem was grossly overstated. Many countries undertook little or no Y2K preparation and came out fine. Russia and Italy are notable examples – the US State Department issued a travel advisory for Italy as did UK authorities. Australia actually evacuated its embassy in Moscow leaving a skeleton staff to wait out the cataclysm. This isn’t a matter of being wise after the event. Once the 2000 fiscal year began with no serious incidents it was obvious, and was pointed out for those willing to listen, that for anyone except nuclear reactor managers and the like, ‘fix on failure’ was the optimal response (Y2K bug may never bite, Australian Financial Reviewm 2 September 1999

Cerulo quotes Y2K alarmist and entrepreneur Peter de Jager as an authority. De Jager was a leading proponent of the ultimate worst-case scenario, that of widespread failure of ‘embedded systems’, hardwired chips built into cars, aeroplane navigation systems, lift systems and the like. Since, as rapidly became apparent, these systems could not be reprogrammed, the only options were to scrap them and, in most cases, the systems of which they were part. Fortunately, precisely because they were hardwired these systems neither had nor needed the capacity to maintain an internal date – it would be lost the first time such a system lost power. Once these points became apparent, mainstream Y2K boosters quietly forgot about embedded systems, but they remained a core article of faith the ‘Y2K as Armageddon’ movement until the uneventful dawning of the fateful day.

It’s hard to know what to make of these problems with the details. Some disagreements is to be expected in any detailed argument. Or perhaps the problem is that handling low-probability catastrophic risk is something we are not very good at, sometimes preparing for non-existent risks and at other times failing to foresee obvious possibilities.

There is, however, one significant gap in Cerulo’s analysis, which could usefully be filled. Although the discussion of envisaging the worst is extensive, and generally sound, Cerulo does not put forward, or even refer to, any explicit framework for making decisions in the presence of low-probability extreme risks. The voluminous literature on risk analysis is simply ignored.

It might be useful to put forward a highly simplified summary of the way in which a decision analyst would approach the kinds of worst-case scenarios described by Cerulo.

First of course it is necessary to identify the worst-case scenarios (An exercise in risk management: on what to be scared of and what to do about it, AFR, 10 September 2004). The next, and essential, step is triage.

Some putative risks turn out, on more careful examination, to be so improbable as not to justify further attention. For example, while shark attacks make dramatic news, the risk faced by any individual beachgoer is tiny (there are between 30 and 100 attacks per year worldwide), and far outweighed by more prosaic dangers such as drowning and skin cancer.

On the other hand, there are risks that cannot be reduced by anything we do. For example, the lifetime risk to each of us of dying from a massive asteroid impact of the kind that wiped out the dinosaurs has been estimated at one in 50 000, comparable to the risk of dying from snakebite or lighting strike. However, whereas we can take sensible (and low-cost) measures to reduce the risk of snakebites or lightning strikes, there is, at present, nothing we can do about asteroids. So, it makes sense to ignore this risk in making day-to-day decisions.

The remaining, decision-relevant, risks are those large enough to matter, and manageable enough to permit a response. Within this range, economic tools like benefit-cost analysis come into play. It rarely makes sense to attempt to completely eliminate risk. Rather the optimal response is to reduce decision-relevant risks to the point where they are either too small to worry about or where there are no remaining options that achieve a reduction in risk that justifies their costs. Of course, there is lots of room for disagreement about costs and benefits as well as about the specifics of particular risks, so the problem is unlikely to be solved any time soon.

Categories: Books and culture Tags:
  1. Mike Hart
    December 15th, 2006 at 21:23 | #1

    JQ, three conceptual approaches spring to mind; the psycholigical notions of consensus, group-think and denial. Without having read Cerulo, I think the cultural conceptual approach is deficient and more evidence of the blind alley sociologists have driven down over the past several decades (Yes I also majored in Sociology as well as Economics, so feel quite entitled to comment theoretically and methodologically). I would agree with your proposition that Cerulo (based on your interpretation) ignores recent and a quite large body of work dealing with risk analysis.

    As a computer dabbler going back two decades in hindsight the Y2K issue was probably overstated but it was a case of the unknowns, the spin-off benefit and unrecognised, of all the code work involved was a much needed overhaul of basic software coding throughout the western world and the replacement and updating of many software systems. As an aviation specialist I am still trying to figure out where exactly the problem lay with the so called navigation systems because apart from GNSS (GPS) the systmes were all basic analog transmitter receiver systems with no computer coding at all. In fact the basis air navigation beacon system still in use to today is a low frequency AM band transmitter that has changed not one iota since the 1930′s (Apart from transistors replacing valves).

    Cerulo probably would have done better to look at R Schiller et al and recent work on psychology and rational decision making. I do accept that the issue of the failure of executive Government in the USA to respond effectively before and after hurricane ‘Katrina’ is an interesting problem but I would posit the view that the issue lies more in the believability or plausability of metereological forecasting and its transmission to the public which in turn begs the question of why given the climate science available is such little importance given to the risk possibilities of climate change especially as we are talking about weather? It just seems to me that whenever we begin to discuss weather, everyone is an expert and that expertise is what we experienced in the past, not what we are about to get! That seems to me the basis of further research.

  2. George
    December 15th, 2006 at 23:40 | #2

    John,
    Now that Tim Blair has said that you are “never wrong”, why don’t you put that quote over on your testimonial list?

  3. jquiggin
    December 16th, 2006 at 06:20 | #3

    I’m planning on it, don’t worry.

  4. December 16th, 2006 at 07:59 | #4

    Pr Q says:

    Cerulo’s book may be located as part of an emerging American literature in support of pessimism. Clearly, this literature is driven in part by a reaction against the disastrous outcomes of recent American over-optimism.

    The “irrational exuberance” of the dot.com boom, “cakewalk” liberation scenarios in Iraq, insouciance about the Greenhouse effect of millions of SUVs and limitless optimism about the meltability of Latin American ethnics into the American pot are signs of US unhingement from reality-based viewpoints. The correct antidote to this is a dose of “ontological conservatism” ie keep your feet planted firmly on the ground, aint broke dont fix it, dont go chasing pie in the sky etc.

    But conservatives are widely regarded as killjoys by constructivists who believe that reality is quite plastic to human will. So conservatives are damned as Cassandras by the Panglosses.

    The US is the most successful state in history, measured by its global powers of construction and destruction. It is also the one with the strongest internal bias for optimism given by its constitutional polity and Christian eschatology.

    The US is actually a society which takes a fairly long-term view of things and engenders a fair bit of planning. Most Americans spend alot of time in college, build big businesses and some of them even appear hell-bent on world domination. This requires taking the longer view. So perhaps the optimistic bias pays off over the longer run.

    It is questionable whether the US’s post WWII history showed a bias against worst-case scenarios. After all the US did embark on a Cold War arms race which involved a strategy of containing communist expansion and maintaining fail-safe nuclear weapons systems. Both worked well in staving off political and martial disaster.

    Pr Q SAYS:

    In late August 2005, I was visiting the United States, and experienced, along with hundreds of millions of Americans, a growing sense of disbelief and outrage at the governmental response to the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.

    /
    The top-down governmental response to Katrina was bad, but no worse than the Bush average. But Bush is an exceptionally bad President whose selection and election were freak events.

    But the bottom-up social response by New Orleans citizens to Katrina was, if anything, worse than the US average. I do not want to blame the victim but New Orleans people have to take some moral responsiblity for their poor response to disaster.

    Large sections of the population took a “she’ll be right” attitude to the impending storm despite warnings to move to higher ground. And a significant minority of those who stayed took the opportunity afforded by a law-and-order holiday to go on a crime spree. This sort of social dysfunction did not occur in Kobe after the earthquake or Aceh after the tsunami.

    PS The current probablity that we are all going to die approaches 100% (~95% of the 100 billion people ever born have died). It is also true that most species lose their identity by suffering mutation or extermination. So the grounds for human pessimism are strong.

  5. December 16th, 2006 at 08:19 | #5

    Pr Q pleae close italic html tags on the second quote.

  6. Shiraz Socialist
    December 16th, 2006 at 14:35 | #6

    After an unfortunate series of small but image damaging public blunders in my workplace, senior management have declared a War on Error.

    It should be understood that this follows formal and facilitated by experts risk assessment exercises. We have already done the cheap and controllable things like implement offsite backups and so forth.

    What PrQ’s discussion of Cerulo’s failure of optimism thesis doesn’t mention is the almost inevitable intrusion of Murphy’s Law (and its endless corollaries). In our case feral spreadsheets and code that works ok on a once-only test combined with staff skill issues and time pressures to tempt Murphy.

    Now as we form our tactical response in the War on Error which we think look like Commando Raids on Risk its the cultural targets that look the hardest. The US might be overendowed with the power of positive thinking, but we are concerned about Australian values such as “no worries”, “she’ll be right” and “too easy”.

  7. rog
    December 16th, 2006 at 15:37 | #7

    Katrina is now synonymous with New Orleans however it hit the Gulf Coast and other areas such as Gulfport and Biloxi more comprehensively but with less loss of life than New Orleans yet invariably fail to be included in the analysis.

  8. Jim Birch
    December 18th, 2006 at 12:48 | #8

    Those dudes in Hollywood who invented the Happy Ending – or at least took it to wild new levels and made it an an unwritten law of scripting – may have a lot to answer for. No one has to take risks seriously because we know that a hero will materialize to fix things up. Just queue up for the part.

    The idea that personal heroic action can resolve any potential or unfolding catastrophe used to belong in kid’s books. Now it’s gone mainstream.

  9. stoptherubbish
    December 18th, 2006 at 13:37 | #9

    The citizens of New orleans who failed to leave did so largely as a result of the fact they could ill afford to. The so called ‘looting’ was in fact people taking from shops what they needed to survive, since public authoirties so signally failed to provide potable water or food people had to do their own thing. When black citizens did it, it was called ‘looting’, when whites did it, it was called, ‘making provision for their families’. The vast majority of New Orleans’ citizens who were left behind were not a feckless underclass, they were hard working members of the US working class, and that I suspect, was as much a reason for the lack of care or planning as anything else. Elites learn to ‘care’ about those they fear. The US elite has had no reason at all over the lasty thirty years, to ‘fear’ its own working or lower middle class, and to the extent that resentment has been utilised, it has largely been successfully turned downwards and sideways.

    The majority of New Orleans’ working class still has not been able to return to their city, and I suspect they never will. A renewed voting base must look very attractive to those who run the place, and if you can import a non voting largely immigrant working class, it all looks very good indeed, all things considered. The hurricane was not an unalloyed disaster, for those with the resources or property in places that weren’t flooded. As always ‘natural disasters’ are from ‘natural’ in their disparate impacts and effects. Politics and economics account for more victims than strong winds and high tides.

  10. Razor
    December 19th, 2006 at 16:07 | #10

    JQ – I am very interested to see proof that the Bush Administration was warned specifically that Al Quade was going to fly passenger jets into buildings. I’m not interested in warnings about hijacking, but the specific use of the planes as weapons. Could you please point me to the evidence of this.

    Thanks in advance.

  11. jquiggin
    December 19th, 2006 at 16:31 | #11

    Happy to oblige, Razor. This report from CBS news is one of many. Opening paras

    Two years before the Sept. 11 attacks, an analysis prepared for U.S. intelligence warned that Osama bin Laden’s terrorists could hijack an airliner and fly it into government buildings like the Pentagon.

    “Suicide bomber(s) belonging to al Qaeda’s Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives (C-4 and semtex) into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the White House,” the September 1999 report said.

    The Bush administration has asserted that no one in government had envisioned a suicide hijacking before it happened.

    “Had I know that the enemy was going to use airplanes to kill on that fateful morning, I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people,” Mr. Bush told U.S. Air Force Academy football team members who were visiting the White House on Friday. It was his first public comment on revelations this week that he was told Aug. 6 that bin Laden wanted to hijack planes.

    Of course, this warning was given to the Clinton Administration and the Bushies ignored everything they got from them.

  12. December 19th, 2006 at 17:50 | #12

    At the risk of being tactless, I would like to remind people that I’ve previously described symptoms of just such over-optimism in JQ himself. Is there a risk that someone like this (not necessarily JQ) could bring an unconscious bias to reviewing all this? And, of course, the other way round for misanthropic pessimists like me.

  13. rog
    December 19th, 2006 at 22:40 | #13

    The key word is “could” which does not become “would”‘; there is simply no evidence that either administration predicted 9/11. The 9/11 Commission found that both Clinton and Bush admins had not been “well served” by intel. This continual mangling of the english language is appropriate to the header “Never Saw It Coming”

  14. jquiggin
    December 20th, 2006 at 07:39 | #14

    Indeed, PML, Cerulo is an author after your own heart.

    Rog, if semantic evasions and quibbles could win battles, the 101st keyboarders would have secured victory for Bush in all respects years ago. If you really think there is a big difference between “warned of the likelihood of X” and “warned that X could happen”, you have a great future ahead of you in a career with the Bush Administration, at least for the next 19 months.

  15. rog
    December 22nd, 2006 at 15:29 | #15

    Legally precise terminology does win battles, commercial contracts that stipulate terms such as ‘shall’, ‘should’, are vastly differnet to those that say ‘could’, ‘will’ or ‘may’. Those that dont read the fine print repent at leisure.

Comments are closed.