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The Zoology of Catastrophes

A small guide to avoid bestialities in analysis.

Wood Sculpture By John Barrow and Photo by Courtesy of Novica, Thanks

Black, gray, white and self-bleach swans: in the last two years I have read and heard analyses in which this very elegant animal has been colored in every way. I think it is useful to define the issue, not so much for the authors of the bestiality, I do not think they will be able to grasp the differences and make them useful in future statements, but for those who read or listen to them.

A What are we talking about? Exclusively of the impact of a catastrophic event on a system, from the one composed by the individual to the one developed by organizations in a different way. The independence and/or the interactions of the different parts that constitute the system have nothing to do here: to place the event in the zoology of catastrophes, the fact that the system is complex, complicated or linear does not matter. The event occurs independently from the degree of complexity of the system.

B While for the definition of ‘impact’ it is sufficient to refer to any dictionary, ‘catastrophic event’ lends itself to qualitative-quantitative interpretations. It seems useful, in a perimeter and generalizing sense, to adopt the anthropological view of Gianluca Ligi (1) for which it is:

“… an extremely critical situation that is produced at the moment when a potentially destructive agent impacts with a given population, which is caught in conditions of produced vulnerability physically and socially”.

Unlike the occurrence of the event its impact is a function of systemic complexity. It is obvious that both the different sub-systems and the relative different domains to which they belong, from the point of view of a complex system differently articulated, can not only react differently to the occurrence of the event but, above all, influence each other.

Here it is useful to introduce the concept, attributed to Bertrand Russell, of the inductivist turkey for which the day before Thanksgiving Day - or XMas Eve in the original version, the day in which the turkey is slaughtered - the catastrophic event is suffered as such only by the population of turkeys, not by that of butchers and not even by that, for example, of chickens.

C What is the purpose of catastrophe zoology? It is a convenient and quick way to attribute the figure of an emblematic animal, real or mythological, to the occurrence of an event with catastrophic impact. So the constant is occurrence of the catastrophe. There are two variables. First, the temporal perspective with respect to the occurrence: it can be historical or predictive; second, the three types of actors involved: the population that suffers the event, the decision makers who decide what to do, i.e. the policies to mitigate the consequences of the catastrophe on the reference population; the analysts, who provide the decision makers with the tools to decide whether and how to implement the policies. It goes without saying that in the single individual the roles of population and decision-maker are concentrated.

D The historical perspective and hindsight. Nicholas Taleb(2) defines ‘retrospective predictability’ as one of the three defining elements of the Black Swan: one can extend the importance of the factor to all the animals in the bestiary but what is the utility in doing so? From a prospective point of view none: if there was any utility in this action 99.9% of catastrophic events would no longer be such because history would have taught decision makers to give them the right weight and analysts to give them the right evidences. Obviously, this is not the case, so retrospective predictability is very useful, with hindsight, to the communities affected by disasters, to clean up the decision makers who did not take into account correctly of them, and to the decision makers, to eliminate the analysts if they have not done their job properly.

E Cause and Effect. There is a tendency to confuse the event with the root cause that makes it catastrophic, namely, its failure to be taken into account by the decision maker or, indeed, its recognition by the analysts. No, this is not the case: the event occurs anyway. Thanksgiving is a black swan for turkeys every year but they, ad absurdum, have neither evidence of it nor, for example, do they know what American families eat on Thanksgiving. I’ve heard analysts say ‘but how do I recognize a black swan’? Change jobs, analysis is not for you.

FFifty Shades of Black’ is a movie (bad and sequel to that, also bad, in which the color of the shades was gray) and with the black swan associated with catastrophes has nothing to do with it. The swan is black or white but it does not discolor or transform. Black=catastrophe, White=advantage from catastrophe: stop. Nicholas Taleb(3) actually talks about ‘gray swans’ in his book but with reference to some classes of events that can be modeled and, therefore, detected by type according to Mandelbrot’s theory of fractal randomness: another story.

G The bestiary of catastrophes can be summarized in the following table. Two asides: the first, the probability of occurrence is absolute not referred to a particular distribution; the second, the black swan-animal has been divided into two only according to the behavior of analysts and decision makers: it is unique to the community experiencing the event.

H-The Dragon King. They are the catastrophic events that have never occurred before and for which there is no evidence they will occur in the future: their probability is zero. A good example are the extraterrestrials that tomorrow will land on the White House lawn, as was Hernan Cortés, when he landed in Mexico in 1519, for the indigenous Aztecs convinced to be the only people in the world.

I-Black Swan. They have a very low probability of occurrence: if we reason in terms of Gaussian distribution the positioning is in the tails. Analysts, if they know how to do their job, are able to point them out to decision makers who, if they do not take them into account, incur in the mortal sin of underestimating (or ignoring) them: mortal because due to the stupidity inherent in this behavior, the consequences are borne by the community that suffers them.

J-Grey Rhino. The probability of occurrence is medium-high, analysts highlight the event but the decision maker neglects the scenario and does not implement adequate policies. It is an inertial state, introduced at Davos by Michele Wucker(4) in 2013, which can also be represented, metaphorically, as a train that you see is coming at your face but you cannot move because you do not possess enough information to do so. Many of the supposed black swans can be reclassified as gray rhinos by virtue of analysts not being able to either provide the decision maker with the correct impact elements or provide them with the knowledge necessary to be able to evaluate the elements produced.

K-White Elephant. In this category of disaster zoology everything is very simple. The analysts do their job but the decision maker knowingly decides to ignore the potential catastrophe.

So how can the unleashing of zoological attributions following the COVID-19 event be traced back to a logic that is useful for historical purposes, i.e., judging the actions of decision makers?

From a general epidemiological perspective, and without getting into a context of specific scientific references and/or think-thanks that professionally deal with disasters, David Quammen published Spillover(5) in 2012: those who read it before 2020, when it had already been translated into major languages, cannot disagree that the correct animal for the event is the white elephant.

From the perspective of complex systems — their subsystems, reference domains, and interactions — the judgment is perforce different by category of articulation. For micro-subsystems, such as individual and/or family and/or restricted collectivities, as well as specific domains, such as certain sectors of public and private activity, such as public transport and/or tourism, one can speak of dragon kings. This is not because pandemic occurrence had zero probability of occurrence but by virtue of the fact that it was not the task, for these subsystem classes, of analysts to predict it and of decision makers to implement policies useful to the purpose.

At the level of states and macro-sub-systems, such as health, social, welfare, it can be said, of course generalizing, to be in the presence of gray rhinos. There was evidence both to provide analysis and to hypothesize mitigation policies that, evidently, were not taken into account and, in many cases, they were not even known.

Returning to the example of the turkey, for which the catastrophe it suffers is not shared by the hens, and going beyond the occurrence of events with a generalized impact, it is useful to keep in mind that disasters at the microsystem level, for example corporate and/or personal, vary in frequency of occurrence but not in occurrence, as daily life teaches. Even if you are not an analyst, it is useful to be aware of your black swans or, alternatively, to understand whether you are facing situations from the perspective of a gray rhino or white elephant. The effectiveness of the exercise is not so much to prepare countermeasures, most of the time we are not able or do not have sufficient means to do so, but rather to recognize what are the biases that condition our point of view and prepare us, at least on the side of emotions, to face adverse situations.

In the next post I’ll try to come to grips with another overused concept that is most often misused: resilience.

(1) Gianluca Ligi, 2009, Antropologia dei disastri, Editori Laterza, Roma-Bari


(3) Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan, 2007, Random House


(5) David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, 2012, W. W. Norton

This is an English adaptation of a neuronal Italian/English AI translation by DeepL.



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alessandro rossi🧟‍♂️💭

alessandro rossi🧟‍♂️💭

Innovation Intelligence Analyst| Meditator Zombie| Hikikomori White-Haired| Digital Borderline| Has A Black Hole Under The Pillow| A Bad Product Of💜Venezia🦁