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How Some People Predict Disasters before They Happen: ISIS, Katrina, Fukushima | Richard Clarke

Noticing a pattern emerge in the aftermath of some of the worst catastrophes in recent years—like Hurricane Katrina, Fukushima, and the formation of ISIS—global security experts Richard A. Clarke and R.P. Eddy wrote a book called Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes. It is an historical investigation and instructive framework that can be used to predict disasters before they occur. How can they do that? Well, the predictions already exist, it’s just that no-one is listening. These people making the predictions—who are always experts with strong data to support their claim, but who are dismissed by other experts—are known as ‘Cassandras’ (a name taken from Greek mythology). By sifting through history to find past Cassandras, they have developed a system to know which predictions are false alarms, and which are absolutely critical to humanity’s future. Richard A. Clarke and R.P. Eddy’s new book is Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes.

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My co-author R.P. Eddy and I noticed what we thought was a pattern, that every time there was some great disaster or catastrophe there was usually an investigation after the fact. What went wrong?

And that investigation almost always revealed that there was some person, before the disaster occurred, who said it was going to occur. That person was always an expert. They always had data that was telling them that there was going to be something happening. That person was an outlier. They were an expert but the other experts disagreed. And we wondered, is this a phenomenon that occurs with some regularity?

Because if there are people who can see disasters coming before the rest of us, if we could find them before the disaster that would be enormously valuable, if we could find them and listen to them and pay attention, if we could tell the difference between Chicken Little and a Cassandra.

Cassandra in Greek mythology was a woman cursed by the gods. The curse was that she could accurately see the future. It doesn’t sound so bad until you realize the second part of the curse, which was no one would ever believe her. And because she could see the future and no one was paying attention to her she went mad. So the Cassandras that we looked for were people who accurately predicted some future disaster. Not people who woke up in the middle of the night with a premonition. Not people who predicted all the time and once in a while get it right. But people who saw a specific thing coming. People who had what we call “sentinel intelligence,” the ability to see something over the hill before other people see it.

And we found that pattern and in the first half of the book we go through seven case studies of past events where we found Cassandras who were right, and we tried to learn something about those seven Cassandras from the past. And the second half of the book we look at seven people today who might be Cassandras who are predicting things that might happen in the future.

So we talk about a failed warning as a Cassandra event. And we try to ask ourselves in the book, why did this Cassandra event happen? We find that there are four overall factors. There is the quality of the Cassandra herself or himself. There are several things about that person that make them a Cassandra or not. And then there’s the audience: a decision maker, a king, a president, a CEO—there are qualities about them that contribute to an event becoming a Cassandra event. Then there’s the issue itself and the qualities about the issue that make a warning relevant to it hard for people to accept. And then the last is the critics, the critics of the person giving the warning, the critics of the Cassandra. What did they say and what did they not say? And in those four column headings—the Cassandra, the decision maker, the issue itself, and the critics—under each of them there are several different criteria. By applying that template to a potential Cassandra event, we think we can begin to tell who’s right and who’s Chicken Little.

So in the book we look at a number of different fields. We look at biology, astronomy, civil engineering, computer science but we also look at foreign policy and economics. And one of the foreign policy issues we look at in the first half of the book was the rise of ISIS. We found a Cassandra in the person of Robert Ford.

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