Random Occurrences Without Correlation

craig-mainBy Craig D. McConell
Published: May 27, 2015
THE recent trilogy of anomalous occurrences in our region (English Bay tanker oil spill, Squamish Terminals wharf fire, and Squamish Chief massive rock fall) have created some speculation about the accelerated relation between anthropogenic processes and the natural world. I suppose perceptions are defined by our personally held beliefs of universal order. Does humankind exist within the confines of the natural world or do we operate outside of and attempt to exert control over nature?
As a lifelong student of the geosciences and by extension the atmospheric sciences, I am very much influenced by anomalies, probability, uncertainty and our diverse perception influencing the rationalizing of such occurrences. To illustrate, I will share a short story about perception of three candidates who have been shortlisted for the CEO position with a natural resources company. A fictional Board of Directors interviews all three, and calling in each candidate, one after the other, the Chairperson poses a final interview question to each. “What is 2 + 2? Please explain your answer based on your professional philosophy and experience.Then send in the next person.” Candidate #1 explains that as a geologist and due to the inexact nature of their scientific discipline, the answer occurs somewhere between 3 and 5. Candidate #2 explains that as an engineer and due to the precision of their mathematics-based discipline, the answer can only be and would always be 4. Candidate #3 is presented with the question, turns back to close the boardroom door, leans forward and whispers in the Chairperson’s ear: “As a lawyer I must ask, what would you like it to be?”
A book read a few years ago had a profound influence on my perception of uncertainty: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A quote from the book that aligned with my belief system has continued to provide guidance in an opaque world: “Those who spend too much time with their noses glued to maps will tend to mistake the map for the territory. The difficulty is that a) you do not know beforehand (only after the fact) where the map will be wrong, and b) the mistakes can lead to severe consequences.” Taleb observed that we think we understand more than we actually do. In real life one does not know the probability of an event. One needs to discover them, and the sources of uncertainty are not defined. The notions of luck, uncertainty, randomness, incompletedness of information, and fortuitous occurrences using the simple criterion of predictability, make all the aforementioned functionally equal. Probability can be degrees of belief, what one uses to make a bet, or the forecast of 50 per cent chance of rain tomorrow.
More recently in another media outlet, Nate Dolha reminded readers that “risk is inherent in all our daily activities, personal, business, and all points in between. With that constant risk we have two very clear choices: we can try and bubble-wrap our existence, and look for meaning in accidents that have nothing to do with the local situation. In doing this we take the easy way out, ramping up the fear factor with little real danger. While this may play out well for a cause, it is not helpful for those seeking accurate information.” Nate’s theme is consistent with my belief.

There is no correlation between the geologically influenced massive rock fall, the flaming infrastructure of an aging 42-year-old wharf, or a small but highly influential oil spill from a newly commissioned ship anchored in English Bay. These are random occurrences. However, as the current world population of 7 billion grows to the forecasted 9.5 billion by 2050, the certainty of the highly improbable will grow exponentially where our settlement density is greatest or where our global financial system is weakest