Cause-and-Effect or Fooled by Randomness?
Lewis, Ted G.
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This article develops an unconventional theory of infrastructure criticality based on decade-old ideas from a variety of disciplines. First, the concept of self-organized criticality (SOC) is explained using three simple simulations proposed by Per Bak, Newman, and Amaral-Meyers. Each simulation illustrates an aspect of SOC: self-organization, randomness as an underlying engine of disaster, and the role of interdependency or connectivity in complex systems. Next, the discussion shifts to an explanation of a general property shared by many major disasters: the fractal power law. Power laws turn out to be appropriate proxies for the insurance industry measure of likelihood called exceedence probability (probability of consequence equal to or greater than some size). The power law exceedence probability curve is associated with nearly all sectors prone to catastrophe. This is no coincidence, but more intriguing is the realization that power law exceedence probability curves can be produced from purely underlying randomness. This supports the author's conjecture that catastrophic incidents (often) occur because of randomness -- not strictly cause-and-effect.
This article appeared in Homeland Security Affairs (January 2010), v.6 no.1
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