Can you use mathematics in crisis management or not?

Crisis management (and mutatis mutandis for resilience management) is a management science; does mathematics fit in with it?

In fact, the question is whether you can use mathematics, knowing that many people see mathematics as insurmountably abstract. After all, many managers are not heavily mathematically savvy.Author: Manu Steens   In this post I write my own opinion, not that of any organization.

Using Mathematics in Resilience and Crisis Management?

Mathematics is a universal language. The internet, artificial intelligence, your pill for headaches, there’s math behind everything. Other sciences use mathematics more and more. In this way, biostatisticians helped fight Corona. But mathematics is also becoming increasingly important in personal crises, such as in the judiciary. Terrible mistakes also happen against it. So ask questions.

How do you exercise caution with math?

Because so-called experts make mistakes against mathematics, they destroy lives in courtrooms, creating a rich source of conspiracy theory. Furthermore, many people, for example, no longer have their children vaccinated against measles with a composite vaccine for fear of autism.

On the other hand, despite the efforts of education in the West, young people score worse in understanding and applying mathematics. This is dangerous because one easily believes a charlatan a court case or any other crisis as he raves about formulas and figures and gives a misunderstood explanation. After all, who wants to admit that he or she doesn’t understand them?

An example of erroneous mathematics in law is the case of the Libor interest rate. The allegation was that banks had manipulated the Libor rate. The erroneous mathematical modelling of the Libor rate played a decisive role. Thus, experts ignored the influence by a large number of factors. As a result of these and other errors, the case was dismissed in 2017.

You exercise caution by asking questions.

You question the formulas, numbers and the explanation itself. It’s best to ask yourself questions about the rumours. You do that in any area where someone has an interest in manipulating the numbers. You approach the claims with skepticism and ask for more explanation. Anyone who has confidence in the numbers and formulas (s)he used will provide them. Of all the types of mathematics, statistics is the most difficult for many to understand. The most important thing you can ask yourself is whether mathematics itself is the right tool.

Statistics

With statistics, you can emphasize certain insights more. You can do this by shifting the system of axes, for example, which creates a false visual representation that people blindly rely on. Or one can ignore some numbers, so that a story misses a number of aspects that make truths look different. Sometimes one makes the wrong assumptions, or one uses wrong preconditions, so that the study used is not applicable or is wrong. Or the expert uses small, non-representative samples from the population. Or biased samples, together with suggestive or incorrect questioning and with a selective report. It is more subtle to use a statistic out of context.

For example, we don’t care about the relative increase of a disease or complication if we don’t know the absolute numbers of the context. Is the 300% increase in complications from 1 case to 4 cases in a context of 10 possible cases or of 100000 possible patients. In both cases, it is an increase of 300%, but in the latter case, the severity for the patient population is much less severe. So, the numbers don’t have to be a lie to be suggestive.

Finally, there is also ‘regression to the mean’ in successive experiments, where misinterpretations are possible. An example of regression to the mean is the story of the “lucky streak” myth in the gambling milieu. In the last decade of the 20th century, one assumed that players who won a number of times were more likely to win in the following rounds. Research has shown that the lucky streak myth is not accurate.

Such small concealments then leave the target group with the task of discovering the whole truth for themselves.

When can we (not) rely on mathematics?

In such ways, mathematics provides for advertisements, medical articles, politics… in deception and confusion. Often with the aim of selling their own product or being right on a social level. Rarely will they be truly wrong, rather incomplete. Sometimes such distortions are the result of a deliberately imposed misinterpretation.

Sometimes the performance is the result of a sincere unconscience bias on the part of the author of the story.

Good example

But if we deal with a richly upholstered realistic story with a context, a reliable source, a clear explanation, a coherent reasoning, then we can rely on the veracity of the claim. An example of correctly used mathematics is that of the trial of ‘the mysterious dead’. In 1996, the body of a young woman was found in the Ardennes, a forest area in Belgium. Police were unable to determine her identity. The case fell silent. In 2000, the case was in the news again when a mathematician, Dr. Peter De Wolf, presented a new theory about the identity of the woman. The court accepted his theory. Justice could identify the woman and eventually convict the victim’s boyfriend for murder.

Bad example

However, if it’s a dubious claim, supported by a minimalist simplistic explanation with further background without context, then we need to think carefully about whether we give credence to it. An example of the latter is the British government’s claim that Brexit would be “cheaper” than membership of the European Union. The British government claimed this on the basis of a study by the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR). This study was quickly criticized by a number of economists. The study would make too many assumptions and that could mean that the real costs of Brexit could be higher. Nevertheless, Brexit became a fact.

Conclusion:

The fact remains that we must remain open to mathematical argumentation, with a critical eye but without bias. The trick remains to keep questioning the mathematics instead of blindly following the cry ‘trust the science’ of the person with the most shocking statistics. You do this by daring to ask for an explanation of the mathematics behind the numbers.

Question to the reader:

Do you know of any examples of where mathematics was used in a major social crisis? Place them below.

Manu Steens

Manu works at the Flemish Government in risk management and Business Continuity Management. On this website, he shares his own opinions regarding these and related fields. Since 2012, he has been working at the Crisis Centre of the Flemish Government (CCVO), where he has progressed in BCM, risk management, and crisis management. Since August 2021, he has been a knowledge worker for the CCVO. As of January 2024, he works at the Department of Chancellery and Foreign Affairs of the Flemish Government. Here, he combines BCM, risk management, and crisis management to create a tailored form of resilience management to meet the needs of the Flemish Government.

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