Disruptive Events and Unknown Unknowns

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” (Donald Rumsfeld, 2002)

Donald Rumsfeld, quoted above, wrote this poetic and succinct statement about risk whilst he was a major figure in the Bush Administration during the Second Iraq War. He was trying to explain that ‘having a plan’ wasn’t always possible in a wartime situation. There are totally unexpected events, which would definitely happen, but they were unknown because they were unknowable. ‘Unknown unknowns’ are off the scale and the stuff of science fiction. But you have to be intellectually prepared for events which no training could prepare you for. You have to be sufficiently intellectually flexible to recognise that nothing you have been trained for is, as a matter of fact, happening.

The 9/11 attacks were, in Rumsfeldian terms not an unknown unknown, they were a surprise. The World Trade Centre was a known target, being an iconic building but what was not known was whether the USA’s enemies had sufficient guile to undertake a successful attack. The 1993 attack indicated that they could. Therefore 9/11 was a further example and that attack was a known known. Unknown unknowns are unprecedented events. They are located in events where humanity’s response is created during the event. Previous examples of unknown unknown events have always been catastrophic but have ultimately been absorbed into humanity’s historical experience.

England’s best example of an ‘unknown unknown’ was the Black Death in the 14th Century. It lasted a mere two years (1348-9). In those two years 35% of the population died**. It was an ‘unknown unknown’ because the population at that time had no idea how what was happening was happening. It was a ‘bolt-out-of-the-blue’. Coping strategies included fleeing, for example. Fleeing is entirely understandable but its principal effect was catastrophic as it accelerated the spread of the disease***. Quarantine strategies were also employed****. Sailors were prevented from disembarking if disease was suspected but it was all far too little and too late. Needless to relate, there were no efficient medical (sweet smelling herbs held under the nose) or religious (flagellation to recognise that this was a punishment from God), responses.

This post considered humanity’s response to another inevitable example of an unknown unknown and believes that humanity will emerge triumphant. The assumption is that humanity will indeed be faced by a Rumsfeldian event. The cost will be disastrous at an individual level but nonetheless the event will conclude with humanity reborn. Only the worst possible event could shatter all of humanity, which given the wide dispersal of humanity across the globe, is wildly unlikely. Unlikely unless the event included the obliteration of the globe, of course*****. The ultimate unknown unknown.

*There had already been an attack in 1993, which caused tremendous damage.
**This equates to about 22 million people dead in Britain 2014
***The Ebola disease hs been made more prevalent by fleeing as well as other poor coping strategies.
****The village of Eyam, Derbyshire, did precisely that in 1665 during another plague experience. It’s not known whether this was a learned response. The Black Death, just over 300 years earlier, was unprecedented and so there were no learned responses.
*****This is the storyline in Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, 1979 though even here one man escaped the catastrophe.

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