What Can Sherlock Holmes Teach Us About Avalanches – Part 3 of 3

Part 3. Thinking Backwards About Avalanches.

So, how can we think backwards about avalanches? Before answering that question let’s look briefly at how thinking forward — cause to effect — can get us into trouble when dealing with decisions of uncertainty. Eighteenth century philosopher David Hume — who spent a lot time thinking about cause and effect — pointed out that our problem with uncertainty is a problem of inductive reasoning because we often have to make uncertain conclusions from our relatively limited experiences.

While avalanches often pose a problem of uncertainty, the human problem with avalanches is that of dubiety. The terms may seem to be synonymous, but their meanings are subtly different. Dubiety is close to uncertainty; however, it does not mean doubt, or the inability to make a decision. Think of the hit punk rock song by The Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. The singer never does decide. Dubiety implies uncertainty but with the ability to make a decision. We might waiver between decisions but a decision gets made. When dealing with avalanches we face uncertainty, which most people do not handle well. Complex and ambiguous information confounds, or necessary information may be missing, ignored or even dismissed. We tend to shy away from uncertainty, so we often do not have a problem making the decision to “go for it.” How many times have you found yourself shifting between “Let’s ski it” and “Let’s not” only to decide, and rather quickly, “Let’s go for it”?

Fundamental Problem
Our dubiety and fundamental problem when making decisions about avalanches is caused by how we ask or frame our first question, which often goes something like, “Is the snow stable?” Or, “Is the slope safe?” By stating the question this way, “Is it…?” creates a decision problem that can only have a yes or no answer, and we have a natural bias to answer in the affirmative. Francis Bacon, the father of empiricism and the scientific method recognized the problem of this confirmation bias. Way back in 1620 he wrote “it is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human intellect to be moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives.” It wasn’t until just 20 years ago that we learned why. Cornell University psychology professor Thomas Gilovich, says we do it because it is “cognitively easier.”

When it comes to avalanches, for most of us, our decision process is flawed from the start. We phrase the question wrong, and then we reason in the classical method from cause to effect, which only compounds the problem. Holmes called this forward chain of thought synthetic reasoning and noted that is how most people think. Holmes, however, recommended analytical reasoning (A Study in Scarlet, p.68). The distinction is important.

In the very early part of the 1800s German philosopher Hagel pondered the laws of thought and advised that synthetic logic is concerned with the whole and greater wholes. When wholes are studied rather than parts, contradictions arise. When trying to get to the root cause of a problem, synthetic logic leads us to speculation. In everyday life this is not much of a problem as mistakes tend not to be catastrophic, but with avalanches consequences matter.

In detective work consequences also matter, and the reason Holmes endorsed an analytical approach is because it focused on individual parts rather than the whole. This line of reasoning goes all the way back to Aristotle and Plato, think essential elements. The idea with analytical reasoning is that by focusing on the parts, we can eliminate contradictions. “How often have I said to you [Watson] that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” (The Sign of the Four, p.96) Analytical reasoning keeps us looking at and for the parts of a problem, which delivers us to the problem’s root cause.

Rephrase the Question to a Statement
One way to challenge the conventional first question — Is it stable (or safe)? — is to rephrase the question into a process question: “Why is it safe or stable? Better yet, might be to ask “Why is the snow unstable?” Avalanche savant Rod Newcomb told me years ago to always think in terms of instability rather than stability. Newcomb said that once we start to think of stability we tend to put on blinders and stop looking for clues to instability and danger. The blinders allow conformation biases to dominate our decision-making. Thinking forwards gives the basic form: “What might happen. Why?” It’s still not quite right. Remember reasoning this way can lead to speculation or guessing at what might happen, and this can lead to wrong decisions.

Rephrasing the question is a great start, but to think backwards, and to be effective thinkers and decision makers, let’s use some imagination, and then change that first question to a statement followed by the interrogative adverb “why.” The basic form becomes: “The problem/event happened. Why?”

Use Your Imagination — The Premortem
You are likely familiar with postmortems; the study of an event after it occurred. In medicine the postmortem, or autopsy, is used to determine cause of death. It can be said that Sherlock Holmes performs a postmortem when investigating a crime. Also, an accident investigator performs a postmortem when examining an unfortunate incident. When the event or problem has already occurred, it is much easier to study analytically. The investigator is looking for the root cause. Whereas, when it comes to avalanches, we are trying to predict if one might or might not happen. When trying to predict, it is easy to slip into synthetic reasoning, and guess at what might happen. As mentioned earlier, when we face uncertainty we tend to shy away from it and may slip into the, as Bacon wrote, “…perpetual error…to be moved and excited by affirmatives.”

So, when you find yourself wanting to or having already decided to ride or high-mark a steep slope, open (or close) a ski run or highway, allow rescuers into a potentially hazardous area, etc., use your crystal ball and acknowledge your decision failed. The worst happened: “It avalanched.” Then ask yourself and your group, “Why?” Or, “What could have caused this to happen?” This is called a premortem, a term coined by decision researcher Gary Klein. A premortem helps people explore why an activity might fail in the future. Klein’s technique is based on something called prospective hindsight — imagining that an event has already occurred. He cites a 1989 paper by researchers Deborah Mitchell, of the Wharton School; Jay Russo, of Cornell; and Nancy Pennington, of the University of Colorado who found that prospective hindsight increased the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.

At this point you might be thinking why not just use foresight as most of us use foresight on a daily basis, and it seems to work well. The only difference between foresight and hindsight might seem to be the temporal setting, but there is also the attribute of certainty that is inherent in hindsight. Foresight looks to the future, which is uncertain. Hindsight reviews the past, which is certain. When evaluating with hindsight, Mitchell, Russo, and Pennington observed people used more and richer reasons. When doing a premortem, according to Klein, every member of the group must contribute some information or reasons. Each person has a different set of experiences and level of knowledge to apply to the problem. Though Klein doesn’t say this, requiring every person to speak reduces the threat of groupthink. Holmes too, would compare notes with Watson and Inspector Lestrade so not to miss anything.

Observe and Test
Much of Holmes’ success comes from his ability to observe and his desire to test. This is what we should practice — improving our ability to notice what we see and to test our hypothesis. He eliminated possibilities that did not count. As mentioned earlier, this is the same approach used by doctors when conducting a differential diagnosis. Holmes sought out data with a “blank mind.” In The Last Bow, The Cardboard Box Holmes reminds Watson that he and Watson “approached the case, you remember, with an absolutely blank mind…. We were there simply to observe and to draw inferences from our observations. (p. 856-857)”

With avalanches the same applies — to draw inferences from our observations, though I don’t necessarily agree with the “blank mind.” Holmes’s feels it is important to collect data in an unbiased manner. With avalanches I am biased towards my safety and the safety of friends, co-workers, and clients, so I look purposely for data that might indicate instability and weakness. This information reduces uncertainty and also helps to explain my premortem result.

Holmes was a tester, whether with materials in his laboratory (and with a sickly terrier) or his ideas with people. With avalanches we also must be good and thorough testers. A good observer and tester studies terrain, looks for slabs and weak layers, and tests the adhesion of weak layers and their propensity to propagate fractures while also anticipating potential changes that could be caused by changing weather conditions.

When thinking backwards in a premortem the observations and test results are data that are used to eliminate hypotheses, leaving behind a hypothesis that explains the crime, and according to Holmes that is the reason. We can do the same thing to explain our hypothetical avalanche accident.

A Short Summary
To think backwards about avalanches requires a little imagination on your part and the logical reasoning and forensic skills of Sherlock Holmes. By thinking from effect to cause we can do a better job of finding and recognizing avalanche dangers and evaluating personal risk. If thinking about how to execute the actions of a fictitious detective from more than 120 years ago seems odd and unlikely to help an avalanche hunter today, here is the simplest way to employ Holmes’ backwards-thinking approach. Think like an avalanche accident investigator but in a predictive mode. The investigator thinks how — the way the terrain, snowcover, and weather interact — and why — the reason the person/group did what they did — the avalanche happened to uncover the cause. You can do this by doing a premortem to check your decision-making. Suppose the worst happened and use an analytical approach relying on data to answer why it happened and to settle on a plausible reason. Embrace uncertainty and seek data that reduces uncertainty. Adopt a devil’s advocate role to challenge your own thinking. Remind yourself what you don’t know. When participating in a group (friends or co-workers), present a clear and concise narration of your interpretation of the situation, include your findings and non-findings (pertinent negatives). Then ask each member for their assessment, and let each individual talk before the group discusses everyone’s comments. Even if there is consensus, someone should still play the role of the dissenter or challenger. The group’s decision will be more cogent. When you and your group are satisfied with the explanation of your hypothetical avalanche accident, you will choose to alter your route, choose an optional route, turn around or go for it.

Some Final Thoughts
If you go for it, remember that you are operating in Nature’s domain and uncertainty is the rule. With uncertainty, we can only use inductive reasoning, which is prone to mistakes. The best doctors, avalanche professionals and detectives, including Sherlock Holmes (The Adventures of the Yellow Face), makes mistakes. And like many an avalanche victim, Holmes died when he decided to go for it. In The Final Problem, Holmes knowingly went after his greatest opponent, the criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. A physical struggle ensued, and though not witnessed, the two apparently fell to their deaths to the bottom of the falls. Their bodies were never recovered (p. 449).

Lastly, like with snow and avalanches, things with Sherlock Holmes are not always as they appear. I imagine that just about everyone who has heard of this masterful detective, has also heard his signature phrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” I regret to inform you that after reading the more than 1000 pages of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, that the fictitious detective never uttered those words, and that the real-life author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never wrote the words. The words were first spoken at the end of a 1929 movie The Return of Sherlock Holmes, a movie not written by Doyle.

To end this, I am reminded of some competent advice Holmes offered to Watson (The Hounds of Bakersvilles, p. 664), but with a bit of narrative (and company) license I will substitute some words for “revolver.” When dealing with avalanches, I can imagine Holmes advising, “Keep your beacon and reflectors on you night and day, and never relax your precautions.”

Thanks for reading my series and I hope you leave comments and questions. However, I am off to the mountains and will not be able to reply until next week.

Happy trails,
Dale Atkins

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2 Responses to What Can Sherlock Holmes Teach Us About Avalanches – Part 3 of 3

  1. Dan Moroz says:

    Dan Moroz Dale thanx for such an enlightning series. Really promotes thought. One of the tools I use when teaching avalanche courses is to make an analogy to modern popular tv shows. I call it CSI-AVALANCHE! Take the past ,present, and future (post e…vent or forecast) observations and try to find “clues” to why an event has occurred or is about to occur. Seems like students will enjoy that approach as they relate forensic questioning of the tv shows to a similiar approach to snow. Gets the inquizitive nature of people involved as opposed to spoon feeding them the answer. May help bridge the book learned info with the practicle side. The goal is to help the newbie “put it all together” in a similar way that a seasoned forecaster can do in 5 nanoseconds!
    February 10 at 5:27pm · LikeUnlike

  2. “CSI- Avalanche”…excellent! It’s a similar backwards-thinking approach that I am sure would make Sherlock Holmes proud. I suspect your CSI-Avalanche is the contemporary version of the “premortem” that I am sure gets people interested and inquisitive. We know that when spoon-fed, most students cannot regurgitate the right answers about avalanches because they lack understanding and context.

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