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Hindsight 20/40

(A Companion Piece to #nothingbadhappened)

All too often, we find ourselves unable to predict what will happen; yet after the fact we explain what did happen with a great deal of confidence. This “ability” to explain that which we cannot predict, even in the absence of additional information, represents an important, though subtle, flaw in our reasoning. It leads us to believe that there is a less uncertain world than there actually is, and that we are less bright than we actually might be. For if we can explain tomorrow what we cannot predict today, without any added information except the knowledge of the actual outcome, then this outcome must have been determined in advance and we should have been able to predict it. The fact that we couldn’t is taken as an indication of our limited intelligence rather than of the uncertainty that is in the world. –Daniel Kahneman/Amos Tversky

The Event

On December 19, 2016, two young backcountry riders exited the Snowbird access gates to enter the backcountry. They skied one steep lineand then paused above the Birthday Chutes of White Pine Canyon. The Birthday Chutes sit at just over 11,000’ and face north-northwest. They had seen one other avalanche from two days prioron their tour. They had observed no cracking or collapsing of the snowpack. Many, many steep lines in similar, representative terrain had been ridden with impunity. The small depth hoar crystals at the base of the snowpack – long suffering holdouts from the late fall storms – had been dormant or asleep to human triggering for weeks. Snow tests had indicated that the snowpack was stable or that the snow was too deep to allow for triggering a full-depth release. The avalanche danger for the day was rated as Moderate, thought the fine print relayed that “Basal instabilities seem to have gained a great deal of strength over the recent days and are unlikely to be human-triggered now but in very steep thinner snowpack areas on slopes in the high shady terrain”.

You can imagine what happened next. Person A drops in, makes 10 turns and sees the snowpack come alive around him. Person B, still near the top, imagines an earthquake has occurred as the earth itself cracks open 6-10’ deep right at his feet. He later recalled diving back to grab a tree to avoid being engulfed and swept down the mountainside. Person A rockets 500’ down the slope, getting bashed and hammered by hard slab blocks almost twice his size. When the enormous pile of debris finally comes to a rest, Person A stands up, dusts himself off, and walks away.

Using the United States avalanche classification system, this avalanche is described as an HS-ASu-3.5-G or a hard slab unintentionally triggered by a skier that broke to the ground. Its destructive force could have taken out a something between a large vehicle and a house. (It was 4-10’ deep and 700’ wide.) The subscript ‘u’ denotes unintentional. It should really denote unpredictable or unmanageable. In the aftermath, everyone looked back at the events leading up to the avalanche to try to understand what went wrong. “Facets were on the ground,’ some said; others said “There was way too much wind 48 hours before. Of course the Birthday Chutes are suspect with this set-up: How could you not have seen this coming?”

Expert Intuition

In their powerful, collaborative essay A Failure to Disagree, the world renowned behavioral psychologists Gary Klein and Daniel Kahneman describe the circumstances that may enable one to develop something called expert intuition. They argue that two fundamental criteria must exist:

  1. The environment must be one of high validity.
  2. The individual has an adequate opportunity to learn the environment (they recommend roughly 10,000 hours).

High validity refers to a stable relationship between cause and effect. Children learn early on. In fact, they become experts at not putting their hand on a hot stove-top. The stove coils are red, they are hot, you put your hand on them, you get burned. There is a direct correlation between the hot coils and the immediate pain of your hand on the stovetop. Klein calls this “recognition-primed decision making” (RPDM). We see a situation, our cerebral hard drive searches for a similar situation from past experience, and we follow the course of action that produced a favorable outcome or avoided a terrible outcome from the previous times.

A Wicked Environment: The Subconscious Mind Does Not Know Death

But what if we are in an environment that is not highly valid, or one that promotes the illusion of validity? An environment where we are actually getting feedback, but learning the wrong lessons? Imagine the rooster looking over his shoulder, the sunrise behind him on the horizon, and – in a cocky way – saying, “You’re welcome.” What about inconsistent feedback? And finally, what if the lesson is both surprising and tragic? The business and statistics researcher Robin Hogarth has a name for this: A Wicked Environment. A wicked environment is one where feedback may be X until it’s Y, and Y may be death. For most of us, this can be viewed with a great deal of skepticism, because the subconscious mind does not know death. To wit: who among us has died and returned with great enlightenment?

The Role of Expert Intuition in Low Probability, High Consequence Events

The risk management consultant Gordon Graham parcels out four different situations:

  • Low Probability, Low Consequence
  • High Probability, Low Consequence
  • High Probability, High Consequence
  • Low Probability, High Consequence

In avalanche terms, the first situation might be a LOW avalanche danger day. The second situation is arguably a MODERATE to CONSIDERABLE avalanche danger day, but with avalanche types where avalanche professionals may develop expert intuition: storm slab, wind slab, loose wet and dry snow avalanches. The third situation may best describe a HIGH or EXTREME avalanche danger. The fourth situation, however, is, as Graham writes, when “the bells of Saint Mary ought to be going off in your head”.

The Low Probability, High Consequence environment. An environment where ski cuts in one place produce an avalanche in another. Or the 5th or 25th person on the slope brings the whole face down. Or walking in the drainage, one collapses the slope and pulls the whole mountain of snow on top of them. The argument here is that with these types of avalanches – deep slab, persistent slab, wet slab, glide avalanches – and particularly the first and the last – these types of avalanches fall neither into a high validity environment nor the one where we can gain the figurative 10,000 hours.

****KEY POINT****

This helps to explain why — in Utah anyway — an estimated 95 percent of the avalanches are of the type where we can hypothetically develop expert intuition…but the second kind account for more than 70 percent of our avalanche fatalities, well illuminating the stark contrast between the high probability low consequence events…and their opposite.

The question is not whether these experts are well trained…the question is whether their world is predictable.” – Daniel Kahneman/Amos Tversky

But back to the Birthday Chutes. In the end, we may try to reverse-engineer a problem to try to make sense of the world because an uncertain world – one that we don’t fully understand – can be a frightening and humiliating place. So that “after the fact we (may) explain what did happen with a great deal of confidence”. The confidence that comes with hindsight. The problem, however, is that we may be taking home lessons to understand the world, but sometimes they may be the wrong ones.

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