Nightmare Scenario: The Fallacy of Worst-Case Thinking: Economist, Author and University Lecturer Dylan Evans Discusses Why Managing the Risk of a Nightmare Scenario Can Be Counterproductive in the Following Passage from His Upcoming Book "Risk Intelligence: How to Live with Uncertainty."

By Evans, Dylan | Risk Management, April 2012 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Nightmare Scenario: The Fallacy of Worst-Case Thinking: Economist, Author and University Lecturer Dylan Evans Discusses Why Managing the Risk of a Nightmare Scenario Can Be Counterproductive in the Following Passage from His Upcoming Book "Risk Intelligence: How to Live with Uncertainty."


Evans, Dylan, Risk Management


There's something mesmerizing about apocalyptic scenarios. Like an alluring femme fatale, they exert an uncanny pull on the imagination. That is why what security expert Bruce Schneier calls "worst-case thinking" is so dangerous. It substitutes imagination for thinking, speculation for risk analysis and fear for reason.

One of the clearest examples of worst-case thinking was the so-called "1% doctrine," which Dick Cheney is said to have advocated while he was vice president in the George W. Bush administration. According to journalist Ron Suskind, Cheney first proposed the doctrine at a meeting with CIA Director George Tenet and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in November 2001.

Responding to the thought that Al Qaeda might want to acquire a nuclear weapon, Cheney apparently remarked: "If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping Al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response."

By transforming low-probability events into complete certainties whenever the events are particularly scary, worst-case thinking leads to terrible decision making. For one thing, it's only half of the cost/benefit equation. "Every decision has costs and benefits, risks and rewards," Schneier points out. "By speculating about what can possibly go wrong, and then acting as if that is likely to happen, worst-case thinking focuses only on the extreme but improbable risks and does a poor job at assessing outcomes."

An epidemic of worst-case thinking broke out in the United States in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. A core meltdown in the nuclear power station there led to the release of radioactive gases. The Kemeny Commission Report, created by presidential order, concluded that "there will either be no case of cancer or the number of cases will be so small that it will never be possible to detect them," but the public was not convinced. As a result of the furor, no new nuclear power plants were built in the United States for 30 years. The coal- and oil-fueled plants that were built instead, however, surely caused far more harm than the meltdown at Three Mile Island, both directly via air pollution and indirectly by contributing to global warming.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The impact of the Three Mile Island accident was probably reinforced by the release, 12 days before the meltdown, of The China Syndrome, a movie in which a catastrophic accident at a nuclear power plant is averted by the courageous actions of the protagonists. The movie's title is a direct reference to a worst-case scenario--the most dangerous kind of nuclear meltdown, where reactor components melt through their containment structures and into the underlying earth, "all the way to China."

The question of whether environmental impact statements should include discussion of worst-case scenarios is still the subject of intense debate. Environmental groups tend to advocate such discussion, in part to grab the attention of the general public. The U.S. government originally required discussion of worst-case scenarios but later changed its mind, apparently on the ground that such discussions tend to provoke overreactions. This is a move in the right direction; if the chance that the worst case will happen is extremely low, the benefits of considering it will be far outweighed by the unnecessary fear that such consideration would provoke. Like radiation, fear damages health and is costly to clear up.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

As Schneier observes, "Any fear that would make a good movie plot is amenable to worst-case thinking." With that in mind, he runs an annual "Movie-Plot Threat Contest." Entrants are invited to submit the most unlikely, yet still plausible, terrorist attack scenarios they can come up with. The purpose of this contest is "absurd humor," but Schneier hopes that it also makes a point.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Nightmare Scenario: The Fallacy of Worst-Case Thinking: Economist, Author and University Lecturer Dylan Evans Discusses Why Managing the Risk of a Nightmare Scenario Can Be Counterproductive in the Following Passage from His Upcoming Book "Risk Intelligence: How to Live with Uncertainty."
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?