10. September 2020
My job as an Italian Security Officer
- how to explain your work in an analogy
I have an analogy that “may” be helpful. You see, I have been struggling to explain how I forecast and especially how I could forecast the 2020 recession. Naturally business people as well as family and friends ask me the crucial question “How could you forecast the 2020 recession?” – regardless whether I was right or wrong about the forecast. The problem is that this question is immediately followed with the next “Did you foresee the Corona virus?”. And when I say that “Of course I could not forecast the Corona virus”, then they simply don’t understand how I could forecast the recession. So you see how I have been struggling with an easy-to-understand explanation, and I may just have found this very thing.
During summer 2020 I had an uncle asking me the above question – How could you forecast the recession – and again I was struggling with an answer. He asked because I told him about the “coming recession” already in August 2019, so in summer 2020 he was naturally curious – but I was, as always, struggling with an answer when suddenly an analogy popped up in my head, and it made sense. I am very big on analogies in general – almost to a fault, and it can drive people to frustration sometimes – but there is just something satisfying about looking at the situation from a completely different frame of reference that gives a new understanding. So let me try this analogy for you and see whether you like it or not.
The answer I came up with is this: “The best answer would be to drag you to my office and then over an hour I can show you all the analytical tools and by the end of this you will sort of get the idea and understand how we can forecast. That is a good solution, but it is quite impractical and time-consuming – especially with a casual question that only expects a short answer. That is where the analogy comes in handy. So here it goes: I’m a Security Officer working at an Italian ski resort….”
News clip from December 2019: “Rome (CNN) - At least four people are dead after two avalanches struck the Italian Alps over the weekend”.
That is a terrible situation, and I have a job as a Security Officer at an Italian ski resort (not the one getting hit, of course). My job is to prevent people getting killed by avalanches. Then one morning my analysis shows that I need to seal off slope no 3 and warn that no-one is allowed to ski there. I’m not getting popular with this call, because slope no 3 is a good slope for skiing, but we have to do it for security reasons. Later that day, or the next, there is a big avalanche in slope no 3, and no-one gets hit. My job is done well. Then one of the guests ask me “How could you forecast this avalanche?” and immediately the guest add “I read that it was a snow scooter that started the avalanche. Did you know beforehand that it would be a snow scooter that triggered the avalanche?”.
The reply is that the “trigger” is not important, but the “underlying conditions” are. The trigger of the avalanche could be a snow scooter, or a hunter firing a gun or a rescue chopper flying low or a million other reasons. Don’t get hung up about the trigger, regardless whether it is Covid-19 or something else, because it is impossible to forecast. What you CAN do, is focus on the underlying conditions. And in this case on slope no 3 there were 2,2 meters of snow. In normal conditions the safety limit is 1 meter - given the steepness of slope 3 (the steeper the slope the more risk of an avalanche), but during the last days snow the layer got to 2,2 meters which is unsafe. Then the wind shifted to the north, and that is adding to the risk (wind direction matters in avalanches) and the weather forecast said that a temperature shift is coming during the day (temperature changes the composition of the snow). You now have so many “stacked evidence” that all points to a huge risk of avalanche that the only sane thing to do would be to shut down the slope. Easy. Whether the avalanche gets triggered by a gunshot or a snow scooter or a helicopter is irrelevant, isn’t it? People get far too much hung up about the trigger and way too little about the underlying conditions. Once you understand the conditions, you know the risk is high.
Now, I don’t know if you like analogies, but they make me happy because in 1 minute I’m able to tell a story that makes people go “Aah, I get it” – without going through the whole 1 hour technical tour de analysis. It’s short, it’s graphic and it’s satisfying.
All analogies should be treated as an avocado: “don’t push them too hard”. At some point all analogies will break and get mushy, of course – after all it is only an analogy. The point where this particular analogy breaks or gets mushy is the timing of when I give the warning and seal off slope no 3. As a Security Officer I would be reckless if I waited until the risk was at 95. I would seal off the slope way before that in order not to risk anyone’s life. However, in forecasting recessions it is – strangely enough and wrongly – the other way around. If you are too early and call for a recession (that doesn’t come) you don’t get points for being careful but you get ridiculed instead. For that very reason I’m very careful not to use the R-word until the risk is at 95 where I’m as certain as possible – in order to save my own behind. But clearly you can see that is wrong, and it shouldn’t be like that. That is, however, how it is, and I just have to play along, so I’ll wait until I’m “very certain” (although you can never be fully certain) and that happened in August 2019 where I sealed off slope no 3. Well, unfortunately I didn’t “seal off” because I can only inform and warn, as I cannot physically seal off the area.
So there you go. I’m simply a Security Officer at an Italian ski resort, trying to help people and warn about avalanches. That job involves monitoring snow layers, wind directions, temperatures etc. It involves a lot of computer screens, weather forecasts, but also trudging up the mountain to measure the snow depths – all while the tourists are skiing past me having a good time…