There are people among us who can see the future.
Often they clamor for our attention, and just as often they are ignored. We are right to discount most soothsayers, but horrible things happen when accurate warnings of specific disasters go unheeded. People die because we fail to distinguish the prophet from the charlatan.
Cassandra was a beautiful princess of Troy cursed by the god Apollo. He gave her the ability to foresee impending doom but the inability to persuade anyone to believe her. Her ability to pierce the barriers of space and time to see the future showed her the fiery fall of her beloved city, but the people of Troy ridiculed and disregarded her. She descended into madness and ultimately became one of the victims of the tragedy she foretold.
Are there Cassandras among us today, warning of ticking disasters, whose predictions fall on deaf ears? Is it possible to figure out who these seers are? Can we cut through the false warnings to tune into the correct visions, saving millions of lives and billions of dollars? This question is not about Greek mythology. It is about our ability today, as a nation, as an international community, to detect impending disaster and act in time to avoid it or at least to mitigate the damage.
Buried in billions of pages of blog posts and tweets, academic research, and government reports, Cassandra figuratively calls to us, warning of calamity. Often she is unheeded, sometimes unheard; frequently she is given only a token response or dismissed as a fool or a fraud. Her stories are so improbable, so unprecedented, that we cannot process them or believe them, much less act upon them.
The problem is, of course, that Cassandra was right, and those who ignored her may have done so at the cost of their own lives and that of their state.
Today when someone is labeled a Cassandra, it’s commonly understood that they simply worry too much and are fatalistic, overly pessimistic, or focus too much on the improbable downside, a Chicken Little rather than a prophet. But a Cassandra should be someone whom we value, whose warnings we accept and act upon. We seldom do, however. We rarely believe those whose predictions differ from the usual, who see things that have never been, whose vision of the future differs from our own, whose prescription would force us to act now, perhaps changing the things we do in drastic and costly ways.
At any given time there is a plethora of predictions of doom. Most are ignored because they should be; they are created by cranks and have no empirical underpinnings or basis in reality. Some warnings are heeded, but then events prove the alarm to be false. Often, however, true experts in a field do their job and sound the warning in time, only to be ignored or given only an inadequate, token response. Such episodes are Cassandra Events. That led us to ask whether there was something about past Cassandra Events that can help us identify contemporary alarmists whose warnings will turn out to be right. We asked friends, colleagues, associates, and world-leading experts what they thought about this Cassandra phenomenon.
How can we detect a real Cassandra among the emphatic pundits? What methods, if any, can be employed to better identify and listen to these prophetic warnings? Is there perhaps a way to distill the direst predictions from the surrounding noise and focus our attention on them? Or will Cassandra forever be condemned to weep as she watches her beloved city of Troy burn?
The most important step in recognizing a potential Cassandra Event is to identify the individual giving the warning is—the predictor, the potential Cassandra. The good news is that, while identifying these people is vital, they can also be very easy to spot if you know what to look for. He or she often has certain strengths and weaknesses.
Proven Technical Expert
The Cassandras we see recognized in their fields as competent experts. They didn’t see fiery bushes while wandering alone on mountains. They weren’t awakened in the night with divine revelations. They were accredited experts who, while doing their jobs and pursuing research in their areas of specialty, discovered or were made aware of disturbing information that led them to a conclusion that others hadn’t yet reached or didn’t think warranted breaking the glass and pulling the alarm.
Cassandras see something no one else sees, not unlike renowned visionaries in the field of technology who envision things that no one else has yet built. Formal education or training may be essential for their work. As professor of business psychology Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic noted, “Contrary to popular belief, most successful innovators are not dropout geniuses, but well-trained experts in their field. Without expertise, it is hard to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information; between noise and signals.” The same goes for potential Cassandras.
Clean Track Record
Usually Cassandras have not given a dire warning before, or if they have, they were clearly proven to be right. The Cassandras that we have selected are not people who issue so many warnings that they just happen to get one right.
Cassandras’ warnings are not generated on the basis of intuition or “analyst’s judgment.” They are driven to their conclusions by empirical evidence. Often they are the first ones to generate or discover the data, but the evidence is usually not in question. It is their interpretation of the data that makes them step away from the previous consensus. They tend to see the problem leaping out of their data with a clarity that makes them unique. Some have an almost savant-like quality, an ability of instant pattern recognition in the clutter of data.
Cassandras tend to be among the first to think about a certain problem or issue and often are those who acquire the data that then causes alarm. Because of their originality, Cassandras come at the issue from a new perspective and incorporate data and concepts from other fields. This characteristic is called orthogonal thinking. They have the self-confidence to be first but not the arrogance that would interfere with their understanding of the nuances of the data.
Most Cassandras tend to disbelieve anything that has not been empirically derived and repeatedly tested. They also tend to doubt their own work initially, especially when it predicts disaster. This characteristic is more than just a belief in the scientific method; rather, they challenge what is generally accepted until it is proven to their satisfaction. They are the philosophical descendants of Pyrrho of Elis, a philosopher in ancient Greece who accompanied Alexander the Great to India. There Pyrrho learned from Indian philosophers who challenged everything. Pyrrho’s teachings influenced another Greek philosopher who taught that all beliefs and assumptions should be challenged, that doubt, skepticism, and disbelief are healthy. This later philosopher was Sextus Empiricus, and his name is forever attached in our minds to the empirical method—doubting until proved by data, by objectively true, provable facts.
Many Cassandras seem to have incorporated Albert Einstein’s belief that “unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” When the authority figures to whom they report their warning reject their analysis for what the Cassandras believe are non-evidence-based reasons, our warners begin to lose respect for the decision makers. They often are unable to hide that disrespect well.
Sense of Personal Responsibility
When Cassandras discover data indicating an impending disaster, they report it, usually via the channels with which they’re most familiar. Typically, when that results in little or insufficient reaction, they don’t easily move onto another issue or project. They feel a sense of personal responsibility to fully and clearly explain the significance of their discovery and the consequences of inaction. They tend not to understand the inability of others to see the import of what is so obvious to them. Thus they are usually driven to act to gain attention to their issue. Cassandra is the person in the crowd who smells the smoke first and is sufficiently confident in her judgment and so filled with a sense of personal responsibility that she is the first to call 911 or pull the fire alarm.
In 1977 Mel Brooks produced a comedy movie named High Anxiety, about the problems a California psychologist has with a zany crew of patients and coworkers. Actual chronic anxiety, however, may correlate with the ability to foresee disaster. In 2012, psychiatrist Jeremy Coplan, of SUNY Downstate Medical Center, found that generalized anxiety disorder was associated with higher intelligence levels and was not necessarily correlated with neuroses or dysfunctional behavior. In Israel, Dr. Tsachi Ein-Dor drew a similar conclusion, that people with higher anxiety levels tended to detect threats sooner and warn others. Such a result might be expected in Israel, given the near-constant threat of terrorism, but in Canada, Professor Alexander Penney conducted experiments from which he concluded that people with higher anxiety levels were better able to discern and “laser focus” upon a primary threat, despite being bombarded with secondary problems.
Because of the frustration of seeing a threat and wondering why others can’t, because of their personal sense of responsibility for promoting understanding and action on their discovery, and perhaps because of their high level of anxiety in general, Cassandras may at times appear obsessive and even socially abrasive. While they can be personally charming under the right circumstances, many of the individuals gifted with the intelligence and strength of personality required to be a Cassandra may sometimes seem aloof, condescending, socially maladapted, or absent-minded. Many Cassandras might score low on what is sometimes called EQ, or the emotional quotient of personal interaction skills. That characteristic may prevent them from communicating in a way that will elicit the appropriate response and get their warnings taken seriously. The work of Lee Ross, a Stanford sociologist, demonstrates that most people are unable to differentiate a message from the messenger.
The ignoring of Cassandras, like many catastrophes themselves, often results from a cascade of errors.
The Cassandra problem is not only one of hearing the likely accurate predictions through the noise, but of processing them properly once they are identified. To successfully navigate a Cassandra Event, an organization or society must move through several stages. First we must hear the forecast, then believe it, and finally act upon it. In practice, these steps are each individually challenging. Moreover, executing all three sequentially is often immensely difficult. In particular, the ability to get it right is exceedingly rare when the prediction varies substantially from the norm, from the past, from our experience, or from our deeply held beliefs about the way the future should unfold. Add a significant financial cost as a requirement of acting on such a warning, and the probability for action often approaches zero. If, however, we ignore a true Cassandra, the cost of not acting is usually far higher than the cost of dealing with the problem earlier.
Richard A. Clarke, a veteran of thirty years in national security and over a decade in the White House, is now the CEO of a cyber-security consulting firm. He is the author of seven previous books, including the bestsellers Against All Enemies and Cyber War and the newly released Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes.
R.P. Eddy is the CEO of Ergo, one of the world’s leading intelligence firms. His multi-decade career in national security includes serving as Director at the White House National Security Council, as a senior US and UN diplomat, and he current advises intelligence agencies, major corporations and investors. He is also the co-author of Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes. He resides in Greenwich, Connecticut.