The Sky is Falling: The Cassandra Curse

It’s easy to see a hazard when it’s right in front of you. The dangers presented by a speeding car, a growling dog, or a growing fire are clear and immediate. It is much harder, however, to see dangers that could cause a problem days, months, or years later. Some of these things, like cancer for example, could be very dangerous but may in fact never happen. Other things, like climate change, happen over many decades.

In both of those examples, the lack of an obvious and immediate threat is coupled with the inconvenience of prevention. This resistance is known as the Cassandra Curse. It can affect not only our health or the health of the environment, but also the way we look at threats to our districts’ well being.

The Cassandra curse occurs when a valid warning is disbelieved, dismissed, or disregarded. It’s named after a soothsayer from Greek myth who was cursed by the god Apollo so that no one would believe her prophecies. Most notably, she is said to have warned the Trojans not to accept the wooden horse that famously led to their downfall.

Modern Cassandras warn us of potential issues that could cause big problems down the road. Consider the following scenarios. In each situation, credible advanced warnings go unheeded:

  • An email was sent detailing a potential malfunction in an oil rig’s accumulator. The email’s author went so far as to include a skull and crossbones image in it. The rig’s manager disregarded the message. Later, the rig exploded, causing the deaths of several workers.
  • Public works officials failed to act on urgent corrosion concerns, resulting in a sewer collapse that costs Macomb County, Michigan upward of $75 million.
  • A succession of UK housing ministers dismissed reports warning of necessary fire safety updates well before the Grenfell inferno. That incident cost the lives of at least a dozen residents in the worst residential fire incident in the UK since World War II.

Whatever the location, industry, or scale, the Cassandra curse can have major consequences. In these three examples, there was obviously a huge financial toll. More importantly, however, there was also a cost in human lives that was tragically avoidable. Taking steps to understand and prevent this phenomena could save your district from a costly disaster.

Why Are Warnings Ignored?

According to Richard Clarke and R.P. Eddy – leading figures in cybersecurity and intelligence and experts on the subject – this type of dismissiveness comes down to four factors: the threat in question, the decision makers who react to it, the person issuing the warning, and critics. We’ll explain these four factors in more detail and provide recommendations for handling an urgent warning.

The Threat

A viable threat can be difficult to believe for a number of reasons. Maybe it’s the first of its kind or it seems outlandish. “It’s never happened before, so why would it happen now?” you may ask.

Or, you could be under the impression that there’s no need to worry because the situation has already been addressed. For example, a manager thinks that a bulletin he issued last week reminding his employees to follow industry safety procedures has already addressed his safety officer’s concerns about some employees wearing gloves while using drills. Only later, when a worker’s glove becomes caught in a rotating bit and his hand is injured, does the manager realize his mistake.

A warning can also be easy to shrug off when it’s presented in a vague or opaque manner, or when it concerns the distant future. Many people are reluctant to act unless they have concrete details or perceive an imminent danger. Waiting passively for more information to arrive could mean that your response will be too late to make a difference.

The Decision Makers

Regardless of the type of threat or its presentation, a warning may be ignored because of the limitations of its target audience. At the most basic level, a decision maker may not have enough expertise to understand a given threat. Even someone very experienced and knowledgeable in one field won’t have expert fluency with other fields that intersect with their own. For example, a fire chief isn’t likely to have the same level of understanding as a digital security expert or chemical engineer would in their respective fields.

Alternatively, decision makers could become hesitant to act because doing so would be costly or upset the current agenda. One severe example: multiple expert engineers warned NASA and its contractor, Morton Thiokol, that cold overnight temperatures would prevent rubber gaskets on the space shuttle Challenger from sealing properly, ultimately leading to an explosion.

However, the engineers were overruled by their superiors, despite presenting concrete data and a logical argument. Those responsible were so set on executing the launch that they didn’t want to listen to warnings that could derail it.

Still, even when decision makers are more than willing to listen to warnings that may be inconvenient, they may find themselves wondering whose job it is to actually intervene. In reality, your district may not have a system in place to deal with an urgent threat, and technically, it may be no one’s job.

The Cassandra

Sometimes dismissiveness can have more to do with the source of a warning than its substance or audience. Cassandras can be difficult to manage. The gravity of the threat and people’s resistance to their cautioning may have made them angry or obsessive. In the painting at right, painted by Evelyn De Morgan in 1898, Cassandra is depicted pulling her hair in frustration as Troy burns behind her.

Cassandras may be so absorbed in data that they have a hard time communicating the threat in context, and they may not have high standing or status as part of an in-group. Nevertheless, they will usually know what they are talking about when it comes to the threat in question. Knowing how to help a possible Cassandra communicate their concern could mean averting disaster.

Critics

Lastly, the response to a warning may be influenced by critics. For instance, you could encounter resistance from people who want more evidence before reacting to a threat. This is usually an excellent instinct, but if it’s used as an excuse to avoid taking necessary measures, or if it develops into a “now is not the time” mindset, it could create irreversible delays.

Some criticism or rejection could also stem from ulterior motives. Colleagues or other experts could be personally or professionally invested in established systems, policies, or methods, and may feel attacked by urgent warnings, resulting in a defensive rejection. Similarly, some critics may be tempted to rebuff a warning because it draws attention to negligence or oversight.

The Flint water crisis, perhaps the most infamous in recent history, exhibited this dynamic. In an effort to reduce rising water prices, Flint decided to discontinue service with Detroit Water and Sewage Department and begin drawing water from the Flint River on its own, planning to treat it using the old backup treatment plant.

That month, Flint’s utilities administrator warned that the city was not ready for the transition. “If water is distributed from this plant in the next couple of weeks, it will be against my direction,” he wrote to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. “I need time to adequately train additional staff and to update our monitoring plans before I will feel we are ready. I will reiterate this to management above me, but they seem to have their own agenda.”

His warnings went unheeded. After the switch, when citizens and experts alike issued more warnings about the foul taste and smell of the new water and the corrosive iron, E. coli bacteria, and cancer-causing TTHMs found in it, Flint officials doubled down on the city’s actions, denying that there was an emergency, claiming that the water was both safe to drink and improving, and stating that any risk was “an individual…judgement” to be determined “after talking to your doctor.” Arguably, Flint officials were so stubborn in their denials because they were invested in their plan and were reluctant to deal with the negative publicity surrounding its failure.

So What Can You Do?

The most important way to avoid the Cassandra curse is simple: never disregard a warning. To that end, always remember to:

  • Focus on whether the potential disaster is at all possible, not whether it regularly occurs.
  • Consider the specifics of each warning, even if the issue has already been addressed in your opinion.
  • Ask for more information when a warning is vague, opaque, or concerns the distant future. Request specific data so that you can prove or disprove a potential threat. Unless you can definitively disprove it, it deserves attention.
  • Run the warning by an expert or ask the person alerting you to put it in simpler terms if you’re having trouble fully understanding implications or technicalities.Be willing to tolerate the inconvenience of dealing with a threat.
  • Take a proactive role once you’ve been warned. Follow up on solutions, even if it doesn’t seem to be part of your job description. Don’t let up until you know that the issue has been resolved.
  • Recognize that safety, security, facts, and data should overrule any personal preference or bias. Listen to the message regardless of the messenger.
  • Consider the urgency of the threat and act accordingly. Don’t be dissuaded from taking emergency action because critics want more data or additional studies. If more data is necessary, it may also be necessary to find more innovative methodologies to obtain it.
  • Ascertain whether criticism is fueled by self-interest. Fear of bad PR or resentment stemming from interpersonal issues are never good reasons to be dismissive.

What About False Alarms?

Of course, not every warning is credible. But doubts about a threat’s viability don’t have to stop you from taking appropriate action. You can begin to gather pertinent data and monitor the threat, aiming simply to prove or disprove the claim, while in the meantime preparing your district to take action in the event that it is confirmed.

Make a plan. If the data begins to support the warning, then begin to devote resources to prevention in equal measure.

Building a System

Finally, whatever action you take on an individual level, it’s important to establish district-wide regulatory policies to monitor, validate, and address urgent warnings as well. Building and implementing a system ensures that employees always know where to take their urgent concerns, decision makers are always aware of their responsibilities, and no one in your organization is left feeling like a cursed Cassandra.

The owner of this website has made a commitment to accessibility and inclusion, please report any problems that you encounter using the contact form on this website. This site uses the WP ADA Compliance Check plugin to enhance accessibility.