Monday, September 9, 2019

What Is A "Gray Rhino" And How Do I Tackle One? (+ That Time I Died For 7 Seconds)

A perfectly ordinary gray rhino. 
You still wouldn't want to be surprised by it
By Krish Dulal - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
I am taking a break today from my series on How To Think About The Future to talk about a new term I just heard:  The Gray Rhino.

A Gray Rhino is basically the opposite of a Black Swan.  It is a high impact, high probability event that not enough people are paying attention to.  

A good example of this may be the recent advances in the biological sciences.  When I began my current job, I asked 20 of the best thinkers I know, "What is the most under-hyped, under-rated technology or trend?"  I wanted to understand what I might be missing, what I should be examining more carefully.

I was surprised at the number of people who came back and said, in one form or another, "Biology."  Whether it is the prospects (and horrors) of gene editing, immunotherapiesmycorrhizal networks, bacterial manipulation, our understanding of the brain, or our ability to create whole new brains from scratch (!), advances in the biological sciences do seem poised to revolutionize our lives, yet it does not seem to get as much attention as other trends like artificial intelligence.  This is a Gray Rhino.  Something that is almost certain to happen, will have a massive impact when it does, but is not getting the attention it deserves.

Not everything is either a Black Swan or a Gray Rhino, however.  A good example may be the hurricane, Dorian, that recently leveled the Bahamas before causing all sorts of havoc up the east coast of the US.  The forecasting models did a good job of estimating where the hurricane would go, and when it would get there.  Likewise, the sheer size of the thing communicated just how devastating it was going to be.  While there are always people who cannot afford to leave the path of a hurricane (or have nowhere to go) or those foolish few who choose to ride it out for the hell of it, most people gave the storm the attention it deserved and did what they could to take appropriate precautions.

As I think about the problem of how to deal with true Gray Rhinos, though, it seems to me that this is not primarily a problem of collection or analysis.  Researchers have enough info in these situations, and they understand it well enough, at least, to raise the issue(s).

It appears to me to be, instead, a problem of production or, more accurately, communication.  Specifically, I think it is related to the Confidence Heuristic.  A heuristic is a fancy word for a rule of thumb but a rule of thumb with a slight difference.  A rule of thumb is often learned (see the video below for an example). 

A heuristic, on the other hand, has developed over evolutionary time scales and is hardwired into the architecture of the brain.  The Confidence Heuristic says that, all other things being equal, we tend to accept the logic/reasoning/forecasts of other people who are confident in their logic/reasoning/forecasts.  We are biologically predisposed to believe those who are confident in their own beliefs.  What is more important is that studies have shown that this is not necessarily a bad rule.  People who are genuinely confident are often right.  

For example, I remember the afternoon I died for seven seconds (It was less dramatic than that sounded...).  Fortunately, I was in one of the best possible places to die for a brief period of time--a hospital.  I had suffered several dizzy spells the day before and had been admitted for observation and had been hooked up to a portable EKG.  When my heart stopped due to sick sinus syndrome, the docs were able to see exactly what had happened.  Shortly after I came around, a cardio surgeon (who I had never met) walked in with the readout, showed it to me, and said, "This buys you a pacemaker."

As they wheeled me to OR, I remember asking the doctor, "How many of these have you done?"  She said, with absolute confidence, "Hundreds," and then she looked me dead in the eye and told me, "This is a piece of cake."

Her confidence in her skills was infectious.  I believed her, and because I did, I went into surgery with no worries and came out of it successfully.  She was correct to be confident as well.  She had, in fact, done hundreds of these surgeries, and for the last five years, this little piece of biotech (with its eight year battery!) has kept me alive without any real issues.  

Politicians, TV hucksters, and other con artists, on the other hand, may not know about the Confidence Heuristic but they sure know how to use it!  Speaking confidently and in absolute rather than nuanced terms is the hallmark of almost every political speech and all of the hours of editorial commentary masquerading as news shows.  Nuance is used to cast doubt on the other side's position while confidence is required to promote your own position.  
(Note:  This, coupled with Confirmation Bias and the Dunning-Kruger Effect, explains much of the internet.)
In other words, Gray Rhinos likely exists because of the way Gray Rhino communities of interest choose to talk about Gray Rhinos.  Measured tones, nuanced forecasts, and managed expectations are the language of science and (much of) academia.  Hyperbole, bold predictions, and showmanship generate the buzz, however.  

What to do if you find yourself working on a Gray Rhino problem?  Hiring a frontman to hype your rhino is likely excessive and can get you into real trouble (See Theranos and MIT Media Lab for a few cautionary tales).  That said, developing a relationship with the press, being able to explain your research in layman's terms, and celebrating the genuine "wins" in your field as they come along, seems to make sense.

Finally, if you do decide to go the frontman route (and remember, I don't recommend it), at least get a guy like this: