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Normal accidents, military and political leaders

Vesuvius From Pompeii

by Spencer Graves

Two threads of research document (1) how military, national security, and political leaders lack the expertise needed to genuinely promote national security and (2) how complex systems are never as safe as advertised. This article provides a brief overview of this research.

Expertise of military, national security, and political leaders

I claim that the goal of national security should be broadly shared peace and prosperity for the long term, and military, national security, and political leaders have no intuition about that. They are selected based on criteria that are more likely to threaten shared peace and prosperity in the long term.

Genuine experts acquire intuition by learning from frequent, rapid high-quality feedback about the quality of their decisions, according to Kahneman and Klein (2009).1 They documented how most experts can be beaten by simple heuristics developed by intelligent lay people, because they have not learned from frequent, rapid high-quality feedback. Kahenman et al. (2021) call such people “respect experts”.

Many military leaders have expert intuition on how to deliver death and destruction to designated targets and / or on how to sell expensive weapon systems to politicians. National Security advisors and elected officials are selected on their ability to please the people who control most of the money for major media. They are not selected on their ability to promote broadly shared peace and prosperity for the long term.2 Many such people vigorously but clandestinely work against broadly shared peace and prosperity.

Normal / System accidents

A phenomenon called “normal accidents” or “system accidents” describes how how it is humanly impossibly to design, build and manage any sufficiently complex system to ultra-high levels of reliability. Such systems include “fail safe” backup systems that are often not adequately maintained and are sometimes deliberately sabotaged to make them easier to operate or to keep them operating with a lower budget.3

One example of a “normal” or “system” accident is the sinking of the Korean ferry, the MV Sewol in 2014. The Sewol’s regular captain had reportedly complained many times about deferred maintenance that made it more difficult to control the ship. He was told to stop complaining or be fired. His managers knew that the ship had been operating successfully for some time without that maintenance, and they saw no need to spend the money the requested maintenance would require. It sank while sailing with falsified documents carrying double its rated capacity under the control of a substitute Captain.4 Under the existing rules of competitive market pressures, that business would not have been as profitable if the owners and managers had been more responsive to the complaints of the regular captain.

It is now over 77 years since a nuclear weapon was actually exploded in hostilities. The possibility of a nuclear war is an abstraction, similar to the threat that Mount Vesuvius posed to the people living in Pompei and neighboring cities prior to the infamous eruption in AD 97 that buried those cities, neatly preserving them for modern archeologists.5 Military and political leaders in nuclear weapon states have developed an intuition that tells them that they can “safely” increase the level of great power conflict without worrying too much about the possibilities of a nuclear war that could lead to the end of civilization as we have known it.

How different is the sinking of the MV Sewol from the current “nuclear modernization” programs of the US, Russia and China? The Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists now says the world is closer to a global catastrophe than at any time in history,6 not without reason.


Daniel Kahneman (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow (FSG).

Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein (2009) “Conditions for intuitive expertise: a failure to disagree“, American Psychologist, 64(6) 515-526.

Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass Sunstein (2021) Noise: A flaw in human judgment (Little, Brown and Company)

Nobel Prize (2002) ” Prize in economic sciences 2002 (

About the author

Spencer Graves is Secretary of PeaceWorks Kansas City. He became a compulsive fact checker after becoming disillusioned with the US war in Vietnam. He is an author of books, patents, published technical papers and software used all over the world. His current foci are the media and universal effective defense. This essay is his own opinion and not an official position of PeaceWorks.


Vesuvius from Pompeii: copyright 1998 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Wikimedia File:Vesuvius from Pompeii (hires version 2 scaled).png

MV Sewol refloated after sinking: copyright 2019 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Wikimedia File:2017 MV Sewol in Mokpo New Port.jpg

Text copyright 2023 Spencer Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA).

1 Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, even though he’s not an economist, “for having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty”; Nobel Prize (2002). This particular observation about expert intuition is documented in Kahneman and Klein (2009), which Kahneman later described as, “My most satisfying and productive adversarial collaboration”. Kahneman (2011, p. 234).

2 Wikiversity, “Expertise of military leaders and national security experts” (, accessed 2023-06-17; this date is in ISO 80601 format, the international standard for dates and times: YYYY-MM-DD. This has the advantage that a standard lexicographical sort puts dates in chronological order, unlike other formats. It also makes it much easier to compute differences between dates. See Wikipedia, “ISO 8601” (

3 Wikipedia, “System accident” (

4 Wikipedia, “Sinking of MV Sewol” (

5 Wikipedia, “Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD” (

6 Wikipedia “Doomsday Clock” (

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