01 May 2009

The Porkalypse, Blakley's Law, and the WHO

Swine Flu has been downgraded to Influenza Type A (H1N1) for the sake of the pigs, but the WHO Epidemic and Pandemic Alert and Response Phase is still at 5 ("A pandemic is imminent").

The Department of Homeland Security claims that its National Threat Advisory is at "Yellow" ("Significant risk of terrorist attacks") - but DHS is just kidding. For air travellers it's still "Orange" ("High risk of terrorist attacks").

At first glance these two alarming indicators seem similar. They're not. The DHS National Threat Advisory is a public alert system. That a public alert system is indicating imminent disaster is not surprising. In fact it's inevitable. It's the nature of public alert systems to signal imminent disaster at all times. I've composed "Blakley's Law" (next time I come up with one of these I'll rename this one "Blakley's First Law") to describe the phenomenon:

"Every public alert system's status indicator rises until it reaches its disaster imminent setting and remains at that setting until it is retired from service."
It's easy to see why Blakley's law holds: if something terrible happens and the alert status didn't predict it, the keepers of the alert status will be blamed for not preparing us for the disaster. Setting the alert status to "Disaster imminent" when no disaster is likely costs the public some money and mental health, but it doesn't hurt them in other ways. On the other hand, setting the alert status to "Don't worry, be happy" just before a disaster does happen is the worst case for everyone - nobody prepares for the disaster, and the people in power lose their jobs for failing to prevent or prepare for the crisis.

This is why public alert systems are silly; for political reasons they always tell people to be afraid, but most of the time nothing bad happens so people develop distrust and contempt for the alert system and its operators over time.

It's a pity that the WHO pandemic alert and response phase indicator is being used by the media as if it were a public alert system, because the phase indicator wasn't designed as a public alert system, and what it was designed to do - and does do - is quite important.

What the pandemic alert and response phase indicator was designed to do is to alert healthcare, government, and first-responder organizations (NOT the general public) to prepare to deal with a serious disease outbreak if it occurs. Unlike DHS, which releases none of the underlying facts supporting the National Threat Advisory's current status, the WHO operates the Pandemic Phase as a fact-based system and publishes the phase criteria along with the current phase setting. The real audience for the WHO's status indicator are people who can do something to help if a pandemic breaks out, do need to know what the current situation is to make proper plans, and won't panic when they receive the information.

Unlike the media. And the public.

Influenza Type A (H1N1) may still turn out to give us a very bad season (though that does not seem very likely right now). But the biggest hazard we face from the porkalypse of 2009 seems to me to be that the media's misuse of the WHO's information may discredit the very system we will depend on when we finally do have a really deadly pandemic.


Blogger Lydia said...


What about bacon lung??


May 01, 2009 12:51 PM  
Blogger Toad said...

I applaud Blakley's law. It certainly has a tie in to the phenomenon of "label creep" in classified systems too.

But Bob, I definitely think you should name it "Blakley's Second Law" due to its obvious relation to the second law of thermodynamics.

May 01, 2009 9:43 PM  
Blogger DWallach said...

For what it's worth, these indicators do more than just alert the public. They're also macros that expand out to a variety of other policies and procedures (at least in the case of airports, we don't know exactly what). If they downgraded air travel from "orange" to "yellow", that would presumably change around all kinds of things about how airports behave, how security works, whether they make you take your shoes off, and so forth.

My guess is that they've been evolving the procedures for "orange" for quite a while now, where it's been years since we had "yellow", and I'll be that there hasn't been as much thought applied there.

May 09, 2009 11:28 AM  
Blogger Algosome said...

It's easy to falsify this law, just look at weather alerts. Even though I live in a part of the country that is vulnerable to tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, hurricanes, and wildfires, at the current time we're only under a fire alert. No hurricane warnings, severe weather watches, or tornado warnings are in effect.

A better formulation would be to state it as a corollary of a boundary condition of a more basic law: The usefulness of a public warning system is directly related to the predictability of the phenomenon it warns about.

Over the past half century, damaging weather incidents have gone from essentially unpredictable to fairly accurately predictable. Volcano alerts are sometimes useful -- the evacuations preceding the Mt. St. Helens blast were well-founded, but the hazards of Kilauea volcano in Hawaii seem unpredictable.

Earthquake alerts are worthless -- the next event from what was thought to be the most predictable earthquake series known, the Palmdale bulge, is years overdue -- "any day now...." Tell me, what's the alert level for the San Andreas and Hayward faults these days?

The fact that the terrorist alert level is "significant" to "high" really means "DHS doesn't have a clue about how to predict terrorist events."

July 06, 2009 9:31 PM  

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