Never saw it coming by Karen Cerulo is a study of disaster preparedness or rather its absence. Cerulo 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.
In the abstract the argument seems convincing, and there is plenty of psychological evidence to support it. But I find myself disagreeing with a lot of the detailed argument. On the one hand, some disasters can’t be prepared for in any effective fashion, so it makes sense not to worry about them.
On the other hand, Cerulo cites as an example of successful preparedness the massive Y2K remediation effort undertaken in the United States. As I’ve pointed out on many occasions, other countries undertook no 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 and Australia actually evacuated its embassy in Moscow leaving a skeleton staff to wait out the cataclysm. This isn’t being wise after the event. Once the 2000 fiscal year began with no serious incidents it was obvious that for anyone except nuclear reactor managers and the like, ‘fix on failure’ was the optimal response.
I’m not sure what to make of my disagreements on the details.Some disagreements is to be expected in any detailed argument. But the range of disagreement leads me to think that maybe 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.