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On “Black Swans” and “Perfect Storms”: Risk Analysis and Management When Statistics Are Not Enough



Two images, “black swans” and “perfect storms,” have struck the public's imagination and are used—at times indiscriminately—to describe the unthinkable or the extremely unlikely. These metaphors have been used as excuses to wait for an accident to happen before taking risk management measures, both in industry and government. These two images represent two distinct types of uncertainties (epistemic and aleatory). Existing statistics are often insufficient to support risk management because the sample may be too small and the system may have changed. Rationality as defined by the von Neumann axioms leads to a combination of both types of uncertainties into a single probability measure—Bayesian probability—and accounts only for risk aversion. Yet, the decisionmaker may also want to be ambiguity averse. This article presents an engineering risk analysis perspective on the problem, using all available information in support of proactive risk management decisions and considering both types of uncertainty. These measures involve monitoring of signals, precursors, and near-misses, as well as reinforcement of the system and a thoughtful response strategy. It also involves careful examination of organizational factors such as the incentive system, which shape human performance and affect the risk of errors. In all cases, including rare events, risk quantification does not allow “prediction” of accidents and catastrophes. Instead, it is meant to support effective risk management rather than simply reacting to the latest events and headlines.