During my lunch break at Correctional Services Canada – Incident Investigations Branch, I’ve regularly taken time to wander down to the South Saskatchewan River in Saskatoon to gather some fresh air before returning to the office for an afternoon of work. On most occasions, I’ve found myself on a south facing bench, basking in the summer heat, with my engaging book, The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This book has been an incredibly popular piece of non-fiction work since its publication in 2007, but especially following the 2008 financial collapse and subsequent economic crisis. In the book, Taleb warns continuously about the risk that was developing in the global financial sector.
The thesis of the book is that the world is defined by “Black Swans”, events that are highly improbable, highly impactful, and completely unpredictable (without the benefit of hindsight). As humans, we are blind to the Black Swans until they occur because of a variety of logical fallacies and biases that Taleb attributes to the human mind’s inability to comprehend uncertainty and randomness. In our mind’s quest to understand the world, we artificially construct our own realities that allow us to move through life, but leave us blind to Black Swan events.
The excellent example that I read about in my lunch break today was about Taleb’s trip to a Las Vegas casino to present on a conference about risk put on by the by U.S Defence Department. Casino’s deal in the realm of probability and have hedged their bets to avoid the Black Swans by managing risk, specifically on the casino floor. They’ve done this through a variety of different strategies including distributing risk among many different tables and forms of gambling, and elaborate security systems that, as he describes, rival a James Bond movie. But can you think of the single greatest loss that the Mirage Casino in Las Vegas, or any other Casino has ever suffered?
It was approximately $100 Million, but it wasn’t lost to a high roller. It was lost when their main show performer was maimed by his tiger that had been hand raised and cared for by the victim. According to Taleb, analysts had developed various scenarios that outlined the Casino’s risk, including even the Tiger jumping into the crowd, but had failed to consider the potential impact of the Tiger turning on its trainer.
Other common examples would include the fall of the Soviet Union, 9/11, and the 2008 financial crisis, as mentioned above.
This thesis applies wonderfully to a graduate course I took over the Winter with Dr. P. Gober at the University of Saskatchewan. The course, Water Policy: Decision Making under Uncertainty, deals explicitly with the problem of Black Swans in the context of water management. Water is the primary medium through which humans will feel the impacts of a changing climate and our ability to predict and manage water is being gradually eroded by increasing climatic uncertainty. The example often cited in the course was the City of Phoenix, AZ where water levels are expected to range between 120% and 60% of current levels (I forget the numbers but it is irrelevant to the point), which means that Phoenix, in an age of climatic change can either expect to flood more frequently, or suffer from prolonged periods of drought, or both. As policy makers are faced with this new reality, they will be forced to reorient their thinking towards water management. Instead of operating in a field with predictable flows that can be modeled and managed accordingly, policy makers will have to develop strategies that are robust and adaptable to a wide spectrum of possible events.
“The policies we need to make decisions on should depend far more on the range of possible outcomes than on the expected final number” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The question that I’m sure you’re dying to ask is how the concept of the Black Swan applies to Correctional Services, and specifically, the Incident Investigations Branch. Well, I’m glad you asked. From my perspective, the Incident Investigations Branch is in the business of eliminating the possibility of Black Swans through the elimination of uncertainty. The Government, the Correctional Service of Canada and the Public want certainty in the management of offenders and inmates.
Luckily, the nature of corrections lends itself to limiting uncertainty through controlled movement of inmates within the institutions and conditions imposed on offenders upon their reintegration into the community.
The Incident Investigations Branch is the investigative body for these barriers to evaluate if adequate measures are in place to avoid similar incidents into the future.
“…In order to make a decision you need to focus on the consequences (which you can know) rather than the probability (which you can’t know)…” (Taleb, 2007: 211)
By learning from previous events and incidents, CSC can ensure the highest level of safety for both inmates and the community as a whole.
Matt Dow completed his JSGS Federal Internship in October 2013 with the Incident Investigations Branch of the Corrections Services of Canada. With the completion of the Internship program, Matt completed the MPA program at the University of Saskatchewan.