Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Black Swan

I am reading a philosophy book. I like philosophy and it runs in the family. This particular book was one highly recommended to folk working in avalanche education which I do a little. Much is currently made of the human thinking traps with heuristics being the topic in vogue among professionals. Clearly there are thinking traps. And if we are aware of them maybe we can change our actions. 20:20 hindsight it's easy to see the mistakes. Thinking forward is not so easy. Do we only learn backwards...............

"Before the discovery of Australia, people in the Old World were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the colouring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millenia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird" 

We humans have a bias for the anecdotal rather than empirical and as the book above challenges, even empirical data can be wrong. But, in science its all about proof and the requires research and if its from more than one source then these empirical "black swans" are less likely as we increase certainty. Everything including travelling in avalanche terrain is managing uncertainty. As the cause of death in avalanches is researched by many alpine nations there is a lot of good data to support the statistic that folk mostly die because they either cant breath, or what they are breathing is not rich in oxygen.

I wouldn't say the book is to every body's taste but much like "Thinking Fast- Thinking Slow" and "Managing Risk in Extreme Environments" and even "The Checklist Manifesto" it's another take on how we think and how we learn from our mistakes. If we learn from our mistakes? may well be the take home from the above book, as when we change how we think with hindsight, we maybe just move the uncertainty somewhere else. You probably need a good strong hash cookie with your' coffee for this book.

I have re bought an old favourite book which is one of the few that rivalled "The Avalanche Enigma" it's called "The Avalanche Hunters". I am enjoying going back to these old books and realising that our knowledge of the subject has not had a quantum leap and these old tomes still teach lots. These books were all important to me as way back early to mid 1970's there was little formal training. We were fortunate in GMRT that Hamish was well connected and brought folk across to run training from Europe, and as early adopters had the first transceivers, but on understanding the subject a lot of self learning was needed.

I reflect back and realise we never really applied much of it to ourselves and skied off piste with total bravado ignoring things that happened to other people. Skiing back to Verbier off piste with Fiona's dad and a group after coming off Mont Gele, then the group of three strangers behind gets killed later is just one example, and it horrifies me to look back at the sheer stupidity and randomness. As we were with friends in a group it was total group think and feeling safety in numbers. Another example in Switzerland was saying nothing when Fiona skied the back route down to Rougment off the Videmannette with a high risk with Roger and then getting lost in the dark. These were mere tasters to ducking the ropes later trips and bollockings from pisteurs. One time they even stopped the cable car above us as we ducked into a 45deg horror fest. As on ski patrol now, I would arrest myself! These trips were not package tours but often two or three week stays in Chalets of lifelong friends of Fiona's parents so the skiing was pretty immersive and full on with a lot of group bravado. All bad stuff in avalanche terrain.

I often wondered if it was MR that made me interested in the subject but looking back its the sum of lots of parts that all add up, and ski near misses and realisation that your were an ignorant fool - that's probably the biggest one!

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