Black Swans and the Challenge of Mitigating the Unknown

By Bob Raffel


I was originally going to write this article in the summer of 2012, after the Aurora shootings. I was gathering data for that piece when the Sandy Hook shootings occurred. I listened, in numbed sadness with the rest of the country while the pundits opined upon the reasons 20 children and six adults had their lives ended, suddenly, violently and without apparent reason. The more liberal media discussed gun control. Others stressed the mental state of the shooter. All were searching, if not for a reason, then a solution. Both are tragically, elusive. The answer may lie not in traditional risk assessment models but in a modified methodology that takes into account the unpredictable nature of such events, likely targets (vulnerabilities) and application of appropriate mitigation measures.


The truth of the matter is that there is no facile way to solve the problem of random school shootings. Data is sketchy, trends inconclusive. Although such events seem to have proliferated in the last decade or so, the truth is that schools are safe. Despite a rise of 50 percent in people who reported being fearful of school violence, there was a 40 percent decrease on school-related deaths during the same period. Still another report pointed out that “during the school year 2008/2009 there were 38 school-associated violent deaths — in a population of about 55.6 million students in grades prekindergarten through 12.” According to the National Center of Educational Statistics, in fall 2012, more than 49.8 million students will attend public elementary and secondary schools. Of these, 35.1 million will be in pre-kindergarten through 8th grade and 14.8 million will be in grades 9 through 12. Statistically then, the ratio of deaths by school shootings to overall student population is extremely small. They are, in risk parlance, low probability events.


Risk is often expressed as the probability that an event will occur. More specifically, it is defined as the probability that a certain outcome will follow a certain event. The Department of Homeland Security uses the equation
R (risk) = T x V x C, where T = threat, V = vulnerability and C = consequence. Thus, risk is viewed as the product of three variables that are dependant on one another. Given the impossibility of eliminating risk entirely, the issue becomes one of deciding how much risk to accept, given budgetary constraints, probabilities and occasionally, political and social considerations.

(Click here to continue reading "'The Challenge of Mitigating the Unknown'," from our December 2012 issue.)

photo by shinealight/flickr


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