by Judith Curry
So, how do you think Machiavelli would advise the Prince on dealing with climate change?
I just spotted a fascinating paper by Robin Holt entitled Risk Management: the Talking Cure [link holt risk management ]
Abstract: The use of risk management as a response to ‘strategic’ organizational uncertainties is investigated. The deconstruction of uncertainties to rationalized probabilities is argued to be symptomatic of a specific conceptualization of problems as ‘tame’, a narrow epistemology that fails to account fully for organizational experience. By introducing ‘messes’ and ‘wicked problems’, a new mode of rhetorical, allegorical risk management is argued for. Insights from Machiavelli and psychoanalysis provide frameworks by which this can be achieved.
The entire paper is well worth reading, and I will be discussing this paper more in the context of a paper that I am writing (hope to have a draft posted soon). Here is the text related to Macchiavelli:
In looking beyond the idea of controlling one’s environment to determine a specific future, risk management is no longer tithed to the specific technical practices described above. To determine aims and the means of their realization, the organization must elicit from itself a sense of humility, or appropriateness, in the face of contingency. The focus is as much upon preparedness for change as upon the strategic pursuit of goals. As such it is more tactic than strategy—the acceptance of the given (only in this case the given is change, and the acceptance is proactive, not quiescent) within which actions and attitudinal stances are developed so as to prompt better performance.
With typical perspicuity, Machiavelli realized something similar in his political advice to would-be princes. Risk management, described as a series of techniques and frames to influence destiny without recourse to a specific future, is the organizational expression of what Machiavelli called virtu: sagacity and resolve tempered by appropriate humility in theface of fortuna and necessita. To be resolute and cunning affords the prince control over a collection of possible destinies, but only so far.
The prince must learn to appreciate and respect the whim of fortune and the dictates of necessity, knowing when to stimulate conditions toward his own favour, when to contain them, and when to ‘ride them out’. In distinguishing between fortune and necessity, Machiavelli is acknowledging the complexity of possible future influences.
Necessity describes forces that are unbreachable but manageable by acceptance and containment—acts of God, tendencies of the species, and so on. In recognizing inevitability, the prince can retain his position, enhancing it only to the extent that others fail to recognize necessity. Far more influential, and often confused with necessity, is fortune. Fortune is elusive but approachable. Fortune is never to be relied upon: ‘The greatest good fortune is always least to be trusted’; the good is often kept underfoot and the ridiculous elevated, but it provides the prince with opportunity. Machiavelli describes Fortuna, the goddess of fortune, thus:
Over a palace open on every side she reigns, and she deprives no one ofentering, but the getting out is not sure.
All the world there gathers around her, eager to see strange things, and full of ambition and full of hopes.
She stands on the highest point, where the sight of her is not denied to any man; but a little time turns her about and moves her.
And this aged witch has two faces, one of them fierce and the other mild; and as she turns, now she does not see you, now she beseeches, now she menaces you.
Whoever tries to enter, she receives benignly, but at him who later tries to go out she rages, and often his road for departing is taken from him.
Within her palace, as many wheels are turning as there are varied ways of climbing to those things which every living man strives to attain.
Signs, blasphemies, and outrageous words are everywhere heard uttered by those whom Fortune conceals within her bounds.
By as much as they are richer and more powerful, by so much more they show discourtesy; by so much more are they less grateful for her favours.
Despite its literary hyperbole, the insight of this tercet is itself alluring: accepting the unpredictability of fortune deconstructs the idea of uncertainty into an amalgam of human choice and capacity. Fortuna’s whim, although fanciful and stereotypical, describes the ‘grey’ areas that permeate any predictive activity. To understand this lesson as a drama, to understand how to weave one’s princely designs using the threads of fortune, is, according to Machiavelli, to understand human motivation and belief. To accept the whimsical nature of decisions, to understand where one might act profitably while remaining cognizant of how things might always be otherwise, to accept the immanence of behaviour, are alien to the bureaucrat, the engineer and the egomaniac, but are defining of a prince. The balance involves assisting fortune without thwarting it, and so to be assisted.
Using the endless interplay between virtu, fortuna and necessita as a metaphor conveys the importance of understanding that people can never be fully understood, while acknowledging their continuing influence over the design and realization of aims. Machiavelli affords risk management a breadth more typically closed by practitioners of technical and actuarial formulas, for whom an absence of optimal solutions or even resolutions is an anathema. Looked at as a practice of organizational virtu, what begins and ends risk management is not the clear conception of a problem coupled to modes of rankable resolutions, or a limited process, but a judgemental analysis limited by the vicissitudes of budgets, programmes, personalities and contested priorities. The problems of such risk management are configured through not only informational lack but the varying nature of the information itself. Seen through the agitating lens of Machiavelli’s writing, risk management becomes the balancing of order and disorder in the pursuit of aims themselves not immune to change or limit. Machiavelli’s was a world set in scare quotes and, in any response to the anxiety of the current ‘risk society’, it is apposite to make appropriate use of the lucid and often provocative counsel he proffered to those who sought control of events.
Re-describing risk management as a kind of organizational virtu requires a reorientation toward the concept of ‘a problem’, one that eschews reliance upon linear descriptions and solutions and appreciates the influence of whim. Machiavelli was exhorting the prince to see facts as inherently negotiable, to rely upon his own resources of persuasion and guile to effect his ‘reality’, without becoming carried away by any ‘success’ he might enjoy. Similarly, risk management would be better able to absorb ideas of rapid change and uncertainty by supplementing its employment of technical frameworks rooted in the probabilistic reasoning of experts with an awareness of how whim, perception, trickery, vision and humility affect the future.
JC comments: Too many frogs, not enough princes. These general ideas seem to provide a useful framework for dealing with wicked problems. The IPCC/UNFCCC is set up for tamer problems, where the linear model works well. In the context of risk management for wicked problems, how would you reorient the IPCC?