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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 5/21/10

Black Swans Demand Respect: How false determinism doomed the Gulf of Mexico

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Recent events make it difficult for me to keep quiet. I have a responsibility, you see, because I know the reasons why some things are happening much more clearly than others, having fought the same problems in another arena. Over the past 100 years or so, advances in various areas from Quantum Mechanics to Chaos Theory have shown us that determinism is a false belief. And when the data is fudged so that deterministic rules are used to 'prove' things that are not true, we end up even further out on a shaky limb. As I pointed out in another recent article, both kinds of false determinism worked to create the financial crisis from which the world has still not fully recovered. But it seems that the same holds true for the massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. In both cases, estimates of risk were to blame. Deterministic formulas were used to show that the risk was minimal, or non-existent. And both times, bad estimates had disastrous consequences. However; these are not isolated examples. The tendency to downplay the incidence and magnitude of catastrophic events, and the strong financial incentives to do so, make this a big problem. But the piece we see is indicative of an even bigger problem, as it has become an ill of our whole society.

You might say I have some inside information. I've studied Quantum Mechanics, and corresponded with experts. I got into Chaos Theory more than 20 years ago, and even had a couple of phone conversations with Benoit Mandelbrot. So I do know something of determinism's limits, and why it falls apart. Now; I fully acknowledge that most scientists outside of Physics still believe in a reductionist materialism which supports a rather mechanistic or deterministic view. Some identify this as pragmatism, or realism, although it is not. Even in Physics, where the most evidence has accumulated that this view is illusory, we still have many reductionists. But the lure of predictability can get you in trouble, when what you are trying to deal with are unpredictable events. And it is especially problematic when it causes under-estimation of possible catastrophic events, or failure to see possible catastrophic consequences of your own contemplated actions. Unlikely events are sometimes referred to as 'black swans' because they are seldom if ever seen, and so become the stuff of myths and legends which are thereby relegated to the category of "not quite real.' The problem is that black swans (both the real and figurative kind) really do exist.

What most people are not aware of is that Statistics dictates that unlikely events must actually occur every so often. Something with a one percent probability happens once every hundred trials, on the average. And real probability curves often have 'fat tails' (excessive kurtosis) when compared to the classic bell-curve or Gaussian function used most often in Statistics. What this means, in real terms, is that the actual likelihood of unlikely events is considerably higher, in some cases, than a conventional estimate would predict. I attended a lecture by Mikhail Kovalyov, where he suggested we need to remember that many of the equations used in Physics and Engineering are linear equations which are special cases of a non-linear one, that we can only use wisely if the variation is small. The actual answer or true model is a non-linear equation, but the problem is that many non-linear equations are completely insoluble, and thus offer us no useful insights. So what is done, in most cases, is that some limiting assumptions are made, so a linear equation can be formulated, where we can actually plug in numbers and get results.

When engineers then use that equation without knowing that is was an approximation having a limited range of applicability, we have bridges that fall, or broken pipes at the bottom of the ocean which are almost impossible to repair. When the wind blows too strongly, or a gusher pushes too much oil to the surface at once, the linear approximation becomes faulty, and bridges, pipelines, and other systems designed using that formula fail too. But when this kind of error is compounded with errors induced by the tendency to under report or de-emphasize unlikely events; this results in a circumstance where preparations are never made for a worst case scenario, because such a scenario is never even contemplated. What happened with the oil well blowout in the Gulf was probably something like that. It seems likely that more preparations were made for possible terrorist attacks than for the possibility of a catastrophic equipment failure. Apparently; the fail-safes that should have been in place were not working correctly, or were not completed to specs, because the blowout preventer they found installed did not match the schematics provided.

However; it is this writer's opinion that even if everything was equal to or better than the normal specs for such things, the pressure behind the gusher was likely too great, and it would only have shifted the placement of the rupture. Of course; that might have afforded them more options to plug the leak. Had all of the fail-safes worked properly, perhaps I would not need to be writing this story. But that is not what did happen. When I read larger estimates of the total outflow with every new report, I get the impression instead that what did happen is a gross under-estimate of the pressure it might be possible to unleash from deep under the Earth. They uncorked one mighty gusher! One which might have heated a lot of homes, or kept a lot of cars on the road, but a whole lot of oil that won't be available for such use. Unfortunately; I imagine it will get almost everywhere else. Either the oil will eventually spread to all the world's oceans, or it could muck up the deepwater conveyer and shut it down (which would plunge us into an Ice Age).

There is no way an event of the magnitude of this one can fail to have catastrophic consequences. They will be far-reaching, and they may be quite extreme, or quite prolonged maybe both. I fear a kind of ecological holocaust. I fear reprisals from other countries for ruining their food supply. And I fear for both humanity and nature itself. This may be the event that ends human life on Earth. But it could be so catastrophic as to kill off a major percentage of the world's other inhabitants. No matter how you cut it, this one is bad! But I see this as a man-made tragedy which is the fault of a belief in false determinism. Both Newton and Descartes, who are considered the founders of deterministic philosophy, fought against the adoption of a mechanistic view in the form of materialist reductionism. They had loftier ideals and ideas, but most folks could only grasp the simplified version, which they adopted. Years later, a man named Einstein said something like "make things as simple as they really are, but no simpler." I think the great minds will always be reluctant to over-simplify. But the rest of us like easy answers. Many also prefer the illusion of predictability to a genuine understanding that there are limits to what we know.

All I can tell you is that 'black swans' demand respect. Although certain events are unlikely, we can never assume there is zero risk. And if there is any risk of a catastrophic result from our intended actions; people, companies, and governments need to be prepared for those unintended catastrophic results. This means there must be fail safes, and there must be more emergency preparedness for when equipment does fail catastrophically. And it also speaks to the need for those who were unprepared to admit their inability or ignorance right away. It can be argued that all of this is more difficult to do when one's attention is focused on thwarting those who might intend to create catastrophes. There is no denying that there are plenty of people out there who indeed intend to do other people harm. Some want to take down as many others as they possibly can. This is a documented fact. But it is also well documented that man-made disasters can wreak havoc on the environment, as well as on other humans. So we must learn to treat 'black swans' with respect, because all life on Earth is beginning to feel the effect of our failure to do so.

2010 Jonathan J. Dickau non-commercial reproduction is permitted

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Jonathan is a modern Renaissance man. He is a Grammy award-winning engineer, a performer, a writer and lecturer, and a scientific researcher. Since recording "At 89" Jonathan has worked on other projects with Pete Seeger, including a 300 song (more...)
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