Leadership: Uncertainty to Certainty - MH370 & Thomas Bayes' Theorem of Probability

by Administrator 31.Mar.2014 14:29:00

The MH370 SAGA from the start has clearly shown 2 distinct human trends. One is age old … People crave certainty and abhor the world of might/maybe, while the other is a more 21st century phenomenon… An almost palpable expectation that the enigmatic ‘THEY’ should have found an  immediate and technology driven/verifiable answer by now!

I find it surprising that people forget that all technology is made, programmed, accessed and analyzed by humans… Humans being innately imperfect, does it not follow that technology has itself to be flawed or at least work within known parameters? (Technology is only as good as the last save!) Personally, I much prefer Marshall McLuhan’s adage that technology extends rather than replaces human capacity. That being said perhaps we should just admit there will be time when we have no control over outcome… the great unknown remaining a constant in life’s equations!

The search for MH370, for sure, is taking place in the random realm of uncertainty. Any conclusion drawn until it has actually been found, will at best be described as probable - Selling the probable to the average person on the street, and dare I say so called experts, all desirous of certainty, is problematic. This is especially so in time of fear/crisis!

For those requiring a mechanism to balance the probable with the improbable, Thomas Bayes’ Theorem of Probability might help:

Bayes, an English Theologian and mathematician who lived in England from 1702-1761, is possibly the first person to have linked probability to logical process, by providing a mathematical basis to infer probability: Simply put he believed that by calculating the number of times a certain theory is put forward by experts, one could infer the probability of its actual occurrence. He pitted the Known VS the Unknown! This approach he felt would allow experts to make use of knowledge they did not know they had – A big picture approach to analysis that allows expert minds to use both rational expertise/knowledge as well as innate intuition. This forces a creative draw on a wealth of disconnected knowledge that will possibly be of relevance to the situation at hand. 
The easy 3 step process is as follows:

1. Brainstorm to evolve a short list of possible scenarios that might be dictated by facts, data and precedent surrounding MH370 (aviation/detection technology; weather/currents; people etc., 
2. Assemble a team/group of experts to develop probable case studies for each possible scenario
3. As a group, repeatedly vote to narrow down the choice to the arrive at a most probable scenario

The theorem was put to great use during the Cold War*. Both U.S. and Soviet submarines,  sensitive warheads and other items, went missing without explanation resulting in multi-million dollar search expeditions, all conducted with utmost secrecy. John Craven a U.S. Naval Intelligence trouble-shooter, his creative ideas/theories often landing him in the hot seat, would formulate several hypotheses as to what probably/could have happened and then collaborate with expert mathematicians to construct a map of the sea bottom – This done he would repeatedly ask them to place bets on the probability of alternative scenarios (accessing the knowledge they did not consciously know they had) – each a potential location of the missing submarine/warhead. Using Bayes’ formula he narrowed data down to most probable and plotted maps that were oftentimes ridiculed as “insane” and “impossible” – Yet he was almost always spot on!

Do we in our everyday world confuse good leadership with promises of certainty? Do we sufficiently value the exploratory mind-set of a leader happy to be wrong... rather than the safe spew-out of known/cliched/expected solutions?

Have we abdicated the thinking process in favour of stand alone technology?

* Blind Man’s Bluff
The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage - Sherry Sontag & Christopher Drew

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