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Sorting the unfamiliar from the improbable

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COMMENTS

27 June 2008 16:07

Guest blogger: David Howell is a Lowy Institute intern and a student in the Department of Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney.

In the latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly Robert Kaplan writes a counterintuitive article about the good things Donald Rumsfeld did for the US military. Kaplan begins by quoting Thomas C. Schelling on Pearl Harbour:

We were so busy thinking through some ‘obvious’ Japanese moves that we neglected to hedge against the choice that they actually made… There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable… Furthermore, we made the terrible mistake … of forgetting that a fine deterrent can make a superb target.

Schelling highlights a common human flaw of confusing the unfamiliar with the improbable. The US did it before September 11 and we risk doing it on a greater scale (more on this latter). Airplanes being used as guided missiles to take out the tallest towers in New York City was unfamiliar, even outlandish, as a possible threat before 2001, but the unfamiliar became the probable and the probable became the tragic.

Francis Fukuyama and others recently published a book, Blindside, that deals with the international policy problems raised by our tendency to be ‘blindsided’ by unforeseen high-impact, low-probability events.

A case in point for Australia is the decision that the Howard Government made years ago to shut-down the ‘southern-eye’; the main observation station in the southern hemisphere for potential Earth-impact asteroids and a key element in the global ‘space guard’. An asteroid impact is an example of a catastrophic high-impact event that seems unfamiliar and improbable in most eyes. In this case, however, it is worth listening to the leading astrophysicists on the matter and acknowledging that improbability is not the issue, unfamiliarity is. And there is no better way to encourage unfamiliarity than to take away our eyes and blind our views to the heavens.

It's time Australia took the steps recommend by Blindside and started to hedge against the unfamiliar. And it is time Australia listened to leading international scientists and rejoined the effort to deal with asteroids.

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