How to reach the South Pole before your rivals do

English: Last expedition of Robert Falcon Scot...
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It’s 100 years since the British explorer Captain Scott reached the South Pole only to realise his rival Roald Amundsen had just beaten him to it. On the return journey he and his party died, but not before writing about it in journals, thus creating an enduring myth of ‘heroic failure’.

In his ‘Message to the Public’, Scott saw his party’s demise as the result of improvident weather:

“We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last”

 Amundsen for his part was typically phlegmatic about his own achievement as contrasted with Scott’s:

“I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”— from The South Pole, by Roald Amundsen

So which was it, luck or judgement? Amundsen clearly didn’t believe in luck. For him it was all down to the planning. This anti-Fatalist stance certainly paid off, but of course it was an appraisal made after the event.

The irony to this little tale is that in 1928 while Amundsen was attempting to rescue another explorer whose air ship had gone missing near the North Pole, his own seaplane went missing. The wreckage was found but Amundsen’s body  never was. So which was it this time: bad luck or bad judgement?

Amundsen's Latham 47 sea plane, shortly before its disappearance in 1928

image via Wikipedia

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It matters who presents the message

unsafe area

Who would you trust to tell you what the risks are?

Research from the Cultural Cognition project suggests the cultural identity of the presenter matters significantly to the public reception of a particular message about risk. In other words, we need our experts to be our experts, not the other side’s experts.

It follows from this that one way of reducing the polarization of debates on risk may be to provide a variety of views on an issue from within a particular cultural bias. Two examples of this in practice are presented below, one quite successful, the other less so.

Continue reading

Everyone loves a quiz

How Risky is it, Really?Everyone loves a quiz and Psychology Today magazine has a cultural cognition quiz for you, courtesy of David Ropeik.

Roepik is the author of How Risky is it, Really? Why our fears don’t always match the facts. His website offers exerpts from the book and -wait for it –

more quizzes!

While you’re here, though, you could take our little fourcultures quiz just to the right of this page. How much is there?

You know you want to.

…and if you really can’t get enough quiz in your life, why not try the cultural theory quiz posted at the OK Cupid website (no, really). According to its creator, ” The test items are taken from Gunnar Grendstad and Susan Sundback’s paper “Socio-demographic effects on cultural biases” published in Acta Sociologica, vol. 46, no. 4, 2003, pp. 289-306.”

Maybe one day I’ll get round to writing about my scepticism of these kinds of tests. There, I said it.

The more things change…

Digging in permafrost.

Image via Wikipedia

A theory of change requires a set of assumptions about the status quo. These assumptions often go unnoticed and unquestioned. Sentences that include the words always and never are indicative of these assumptions hard at work in the background, demonstrating the unexamined existence of a worldview in which particular forms of stability are taken for granted.

The Russian leadership’s reluctance to ‘believe’ in climate change has undergone something of a shift recently because the assumptions about what is always the case or never the case in Russia have been shaken to the core by drought, massive forest fires and unprecedented (but not uncontested) melting of the permafrost. A recent article by Tony Wood in the LRB outlines these events.

One could be cynical at this point and note that a single extreme weather event is no more indicative of long term climate change than a single swallow is indicative of the arrival of Summer. For the Russian president to change his mind on climate change just because he can smell smoke in Moscow is as naïve as the previous position in which climate change was denied. Russian winters are pretty cold and anyway it’s all a plot invented by Al Gore’s business interests.

But here too the assumptions about stability which underpin our theories of change are under revision. The well established claim that you can’t read climate change from unique events is now itself being revised.

Two thirds of Russia is made up of Permafrost – vechnaya merzlota. Both in English and Russian this is ‘permanent’ or ‘eternal’. By very definition it cannot change and is therefore impervious to rising temperatures or any other supposed shift.

I am mentioning this here because the way things supposedly always are is a crucial mental category, one that organises and disorganises almost all our social relations. We take it for granted at our peril.

The decline of civilization – sudden or gradual?

Thomas Cole The Course of Empire 1836: Consummation

'empires are complex systems'

Quick, quick, slow – the dance steps of collapse

What kinds of stories are we telling one another these days about the fall of civilizations? The idea that the decline of a civilization is without narrative causality is itself a narrative. This is the unacknowledged ideology of historian Niall Ferguson’s recent piece for Foreign Affairs. Here Ferguson abandons the typical causality of historians and opts for a different account, based on complex systems theory. Continue reading

Being Vague about Risk Assessment

pound or two shop. Flickr: whyohwhyohwhyohWhat is the probablity that a 178cm man is tall (or that many items will cost between one pound and two pounds)?

Vagueness is a besetting problem in quantitative risk assessment and it’s often overlooked or ignored in the attempt to find one metric (probability) by which to measure uncertainty. Clearly it’s inappropriate to use probabilistic methods to assess whether or not someone is tall (unless you are using population data to assess, say, the probability someone is taller than a specified height). But many other situations are quantified with probability when they shouldn’t be. Philosopher Mark Colyvan argues that all situations with vague premises should be assessed non-probabilistically. Just as the tallness of a person or the number that constitutes ‘many’ is vague because there will always be borderline cases, so too we should not speak of the probability that, say, biodiversity is declining in a particular ecosystem. Both the measurement of biodiversity and indeed the limits of an ecosystem are vague in the same sense.

This is to highlight the logical assumptions of Cox’s theorem, that ‘Any measure of belief is isomorphic to a probability measure’. Not that Cox is wrong, just that he can be and is used inappropriately whare vague premises are involved.

Colyvan points to a strong claim:

no adequate defense of classical logic in domains employing vague predicates is possible. If I am right about this, then not only are non- probabilistic methods legitimate methods for quantifying at least some types of uncertainty, but are also required for the adequate treatment of uncertainty in any domain where vague predicates are used (2008: 651).

So shouldn’t we just speak more precisely? Wouldn’t this clear up the vagueness and allow us to have confidence in our probabilities? That question brings us to the punchline of this post. Colyvan produces a marvellous quotation from a book on Uncertainty (Morgan and Henrion):

They claim that [uncertainty due to linguistic imprecision]  is “usually relatively easy to remove with a bit of clear thinking” (1990, p. 62). If it were so easy to remove, you would expect them to be able to state this thesis without appeal to at least four vague terms.

What is the probability that vagueness is here to stay?

In case you missed it: Certainty – I’m fairly sure we don’t need it.


Colyvan, M. (2008) Is probability the only approach to uncertainty? Risk Analysis 28.3: 645-652.

Cox, R. T. (1946). Probability, frequency and reasonable ex- pectation. American Journal of Physics, 14, 1–13.

Morgan, M. G., & Henrion, M. (1990). Uncertainty: A Guide to Dealing with Uncertainty in Quantitative Risk and Policy Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Image credit: the vague shop by whyohwhyohwhyoh