The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Cassandra Complex

The prophet Cassandra was blessed with the ability to foretell the future: but cursed that no one would believe her.

Except that this is the way that prophecy works, if people believe a dire prophecy, it generally doesn’t come true.  My friend Stirling Newberry calls this a “self-unfullfilling prophecy”.

This relates also to the joke about nobodies, as in “nobody predicted the financial crash.”  Because if you predicted it, you’re a nobody.  So you have fools saying “it couldn’t have been predicted” when it very clearly was.  I even publicly predicted the exact month the stock market would crash, about a year in advance.  Every once in a while I get an email from someone who saved a lot of money by listening.

Well, ok, every once in a very long time.  Most people read it, shrugged, and didn’t do anything.

There are a lot of organizations you want run by pessimists (for example, nuclear reactors.)  The sort of people who have posters proclaiming “Murphy was an optimist” on their walls.  The sort of people who told the Japanese how to fix their reactors in the 80s, who had they been listened to, would have avoided an meltdown.

But the problem with such people is that they run themselves out of jobs.  They make prophecies, scare people, get the problems fixed, and so their prophecies don’t happen.  Absent major disasters for long enough, people become complacent and decide they don’t need to spend money, time and trouble on the warnings of fools whose prophecies never come true.  They look at all the money they can save, or make, by getting rid of regulations, gutting inspections and running without precautions, and they realize that that even if something bad happens, the odds of them being held accountable are infinitesimal.  After all, when the Japanese financial bubble burst, senior people committed suicide.

Did anyone responsible for the nuclear meltdown in Japan commit suicide?


They should have.  And I’m quite serious about that.

When accountability goes away, when the elites no longer believe they have a responsibility to anyone but themselves, and often not even that, your society is in for disaster after disaster.

And so, in the US, you have the Iraq war, Katrina, the great financial collapse, weather disaster after weather disaster without anything being done to protect against the next one. You have the near-absolute certainty of a billion or more incremental deaths from climate change, the near-certainty of drought in large parts of the world, the near-certainty of dust-bowls, and on and on.

And they yawn.  They laugh at the Cassandras.  Maybe they even know the Cassandras are right

The next age will take its prophets very seriously.  And they will  produce self-unfulfilling prophecies.  And so the cycle will go on.

Unless we learn how to break this, and many other cycles, we are doomed by the sad human fact that the vast majority of people don’t really learn from anyone’s experience but their own.  And one day it will catch  up to us, and it will push us to extinction, because we now have the means, and more than the means to destroy ourselves utterly.  If we do not grow up as a species, if we do not gain wisdom, we may not be long for this world.

Edit: changed wording on suicides to make clear that the people RESPONSIBLE did not commit suicide.


Rand Paul’s Filibuster


Overruling NYC’s Ban on Large Sodas


  1. Eventus stultorum magister est. (Fools must be taught by experience.) -Livy, 35 B.C.

  2. And even bigger fools don’t learn from experience.

  3. Oaktown Girl

    It’s going to be ugly. Very, very, very ugly. And on top of that, the people most deserving of suffering the brunt the consequences are going to be among the most shielded from them for the longest possible duration.

  4. Ian Welsh

    My version is:

    the wise learn from other people’s mistakes
    Ordinary people learn from their own mistakes
    fools don’t learn even from their own mistakes.

  5. stckybnny

    Maybe if we lived forever we’d feel more invested in our long term outcome. I mean, like, gosh… Can’t take that cool beamer to heaven with you, might as well buy yourself a Rolls Royce and chuck the children’s college after all, ‘cause you can’t take them to heaven with you either. *sight*

  6. stckybnny

    Oops, I meant *sigh*

  7. Krissy

    Its so true. The Harold Campings get so much attention, but when it comes to the housing bubble or climate change its crickets.

  8. Jim Shannon

    There is a solution. But everyone refuses to talk about it! The Elite have ALWAYS used their money to control governments which are used to CONTROL the people! Their GREED has always been allowed to rule the masses. Paying the underclass to police the people! Using their privilege to BUY politicians! This can all end thru a simple act by the people!
    TAX ALL CentaMillionaire$ and Billionaire$ out of existence! Tax ALL wealth over $10,000,000 at 100% would end their rule and the corruption their money CLEARLY causes!
    Some sites have your ear – you can be the second voice to see a new world and different future for the all the people including the UBER GREEDY!

    Voters have the power to make it happen – the leadership does not exist!

  9. The time travel thought experiment (simplified.)

    So, you go back in time to September 10, 2001. You know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Do you:

    Ring the alarms?

    1) You are heeded, and it is prevented. You are also marched off into detention, because there’s *some* reason you knew about it, and they ain’t gonna buy the time travel explanation.

    2) No one believes you, and it happens. You are also marched off into detention (and even worse, now,) because there’s *some* reason you knew about it, and they ain’t gonna buy the time travel explanation.

    Yup – there’s no percentage in being a Cassandra. 🙂

    And good thing time travel is impossible, too – ’cause who needs that kind of an ethical dilemma?

  10. S Brennan

    ” September 10, 2001. You know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Do you…”

    Since Condi Rice, Cheney and Rumsfield, were informed of the means, exact place and two week time window…the answer is clearly: “begin the execution of your unrelated war of aggression”.

  11. @S Brennan – LOL.

    Oh, I forgot the most important part. If 1): “No, I swear! The towers actually came completely down!

  12. cenobite

    Re: time travel is impossible

    I am the Eschaton; I am not your God. I am descended from you, and exist in your future. Thou shalt not violate causality within my historic light cone. Or else.

  13. Cassandra got her power when Apollo, the god of prophecy and the leader of the Muses, had his, uh, “eye” on her, but when she refused him he cursed her never to be believed. I have sometimes thought about the symbolism of this, particularly in light of what you identify correctly as a need for people to find a way to listen to the Cassandras. And I feel that the answer rests with the Cassandras.

  14. Rob Grigjanis

    They make prophecies, scare people, get the problems fixed, and so their prophecies don’t happen.

    I’m still amazed at the number of people who think Y2K was a hoax. They have no idea of the panic felt by large corporations, or the money they spent to fix millions of lines of code.

  15. “And I feel that the answer rests with the Cassandras.”

    I don’t follow. The Cassandras are supposed to let themselves get boned and then they’ll be believed?

    I’d like to hear Ian’s current short-term (with 1 year) predictions, whether he wants to love me long time for fi’ dolla’ or not.

  16. @Rob Grigjanis – There is truth to that – I happened to be between companies around that time and made some pretty good coin repairing old date formats. It’s true that for some it would have been a significant problem, but for the majority of the software that I came across the impending “meltdown” was a tad over-hyped. Of course, it only takes one little tiny key piece of code to upset the apple cart!

  17. It is kinda funny mentioning that none of the Japanese committed suicide. I actually searched for information on that a few weeks ago. Unfortunately suicides in the regions affected rose.

  18. @Rob Grigjanis — What Petro said, and there were lots of people urging manning of barricades and setting up shelters because food distribution systems would cease to exits resulting in food wars, and that power, water and waste disposal would cease to function nation wide. Y2K was certainly not a hoax per se, and a great deal of money was certainly spent of necessity to prevent serious problems, but there was a great deal of hoax heaped on top of the real issue.

  19. Ian Welsh

    The people responsible did not commit suicide.

  20. General Washington


    Query, in particular regards to this:

    “The sort of people who told the Japanese how to fix their reactors in the 80s, who had they been listened to, would have avoided an meltdown.”

    Can you elaborate a little bit, or at least point me in the right direction to illuminate my own path to understanding this bit of history?

    Not to take away from the totality of this particular message, but I have reasons for wanting to know more about this, in particular.

  21. someofparts

    Well, geologically speaking, mass extinctions are fairly common.

  22. Everythings Jake

    Another variant (the one that I heard):

    Smart people learn from their own mistakes, wise people learn from the mistakes of others. Unfortunately, I’ve been much smarter than I’ve been wise.

  23. I don’t follow. The Cassandras are supposed to let themselves get boned and then they’ll be believed?

    The logic of the story of Cassandra is not that the Trojans are somehow at fault for not believing her. How could they? She had been cursed by the god for rejecting him. That’s why it bemuses me a little bit that people might want to identify themselves as Cassandras, because the logic of the myth is that Cassandra could indeed have saved Troy if she hadn’t committed sacrilege (by rejecting the god’s advances). Cassandra is intended to be a tragic figure, her foreknowledge is not a mission, it’s punishment for something.

    The more I think about it, the more fascinating a choice of allegory it is. Getting “boned” by a god(dess) is a widespread metaphor for inspiration, excellence, etc. (Think of poetry surrounding Muses, or for that matter the Christian story of Mary…) Of course the downside is the fate of many of Zeus’ objects of lust…

  24. Ian Welsh

    In my personal life I mostly learn from my own experiences (but not always). In my public life, from other people’s (mostly).

    No one is always wise, though a few are always fools…

  25. General Washington

    Thank you Ian.

  26. Ned Ludd

    Back in January 2007, Jebediah Reed of the now-defunct Radar Magazine “selected the four pundits who were in our judgment the most influentially and disturbingly misguided in their pro-war arguments and the four who were most prescient and forceful in their opposition… Then we did a career check … and found that something is rotten in the fourth estate.”

    The complete article is available at the Internet Archive. The careers that Reed looked were those of:


    • Tom Friedman
    • Peter Beinart
    • Fareed Zakaria
    • Jeffrey Goldberg


    • Rober Scheer
    • William. S. Lind
    • Jonathan Schell
    • Scott Ritter

  27. Ian:
    I liked your essay. The Stoics believed that there are things in life that are within our control and things outside our control. We can check the weather forcast and know the probability of rain or sun, but we can only control bringing an umbrella when we leave the house. The stock market is similar and it’s not much better than playing the odds in Vegas. Or we can let history and academic research guide us and know the probability of success or failure based on previous experience adherance to theories. But ultimately when you really think about it, there’s really not many things in life we can control…except for our own attitudes.

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