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The possible unexpected consequences of intervention

[ by Charles Cameron — wondering whether it can ever be possible to expect the unexpected, and if so, what exactly that might mean? Libya & Mali ]


Alex Thurston at Sahel Blog: Covering Politics and Religion in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa posted Libya and Mali, Part I today. The topic is one I am not qualified to comment on, although I’m trying to learn from those (such as AT) who are — but this sentence caught my eye and got me writing:

A failure to soberly consider the possible unexpected consequences of intervention and transition has helped chaos to develop in post-Qadhafi Libya.

I wonder if that’s a koan?


Is it ever possible to “soberly consider the possible unexpected consequences” of anything? Consider Donald Rumsfeld‘s remark:

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.

Throw in the missing fourth category, supplied by somebody for Wikipedia:

Moreover, one may criticize Rumsfeld statement for omitting the most dangerous type of unknown: the “unknown known”. That is, as Mark Twain famously expressed it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you think you know that just ain’t so”. Indeed, Rumsfeld was really discussing an “unknown known” which provided faulty justification for the war — members of the Bush administration claimed that the Iraqi government possessed weapons of mass destruction (see Rationale_for_the_Iraq_War), but it just wasn’t so.


Now allow for what you might call informed guess-work, what CS Peirce called abduction — I’m just now introducing my elder son to Eco & Sebeok‘s magnificent book, The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce — and “non-predictive” attempts to lay out a spread of possible outcomes by means of scenario-planning, as Tom Barnett wrote in his Year 2000 International Security Dimension Project Final Report:

By “decision scenario approach,” we mean using credible scenarios to create awareness among relevant decision-makers regarding the sort of strategic issues and choices they are likely to face if the more stressing pathways envisioned come to pass.


Again, none of our material here is meant to be predictive in the sense of providing a step-by-step “cookbook” approach to Y2K and Millennial Date Change crisis management. Our fundamental goal in collecting and synthesizing this analysis is to avoid any situation where US military decision makers and/or operational commanders would find themselves in seemingly uncharted territory and declare, “I had no idea . . ..”

We (myself at times included) seem to be busily employed making non-predictive predictions.


Black swansNassim Nicholas Taleb may have been the one who most recently crept up behind us and clapped loudly to alert us to the unexpected, but Stéphane Mallarmé was there first in 1897 with the great graphical poem Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, featured in the lower image of the pair at the top of this post.

My own “zen telegram” version, for those who neither know the poem nor read French:



not even when tossed sub specie aeternitatis from the depth of a shipwreck



— now there’s a koan for our times — and always.


Listen to the poets…

Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, & Future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk’d among the ancient trees…


Sources and links:

  • Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard from Wikipedia
  • le début de la typographie moderne by Étienne Mineur with page images
  • Un coup de dés, French original and English translation, by AS Kline
  • See that voice of the Bard, William Blake
  • 8 Responses to “The possible unexpected consequences of intervention”

    1. Justin Boland Says:

      Is it ever possible to “soberly consider the possible unexpected consequences” of anything?
      Yes, and with some degree of rigor, too. The intelligence community has created an array of structured techniques for this. It is unfortunate that American students are not taught to think at any point in their curriculum — I myself only discovered Bayesian reasoning last year, and ACH techniques a couple years before that.
      Although it’s usually only mined for conspiracy theory, the work of Stanford Research Institute and RAND in “soberly considering the possible unexpected consequences” is full of great stories, ideas and novel-sized personalities.

    2. larrydunbar Says:

      “The intelligence community has created an array of structured techniques for this.”

      And they are all structured as butterfly wings 🙂 

    3. Justin Boland Says:

      Larry, the flight path of your joke was at an altitude far in excess of my skull’s current disposition. I suspect that was the point, though.

    4. Charles Cameron Says:

      I’m bringing this comment by Derek Robinson across from G+:

      A wonderful offering Charles, mucho gracias. The suggestion that Mr. Rumsfeld’s famous remark lacked “unknown known” to complete the tableau ( + + ) ( + – ) ( – + ) ( – – ) was illuminating, I see a parallel with what statisticians call “false negatives”, aka “negative hallucinations” – not seeing something that is really there, which has been termed “change blindness”. The great mother of all such blind spots would be neglect of our own role in perception. Like Einstein said, “It is the theory that determines what we see.” Nor would there be any “objective” position to be had, unless perhaps Nicholas Cusanus’ asymptotic conjunction of opposites “at infinity.” The present context or frame, as ground, is always eclipsed by the figure or focal object occupying the center of awareness. Here I’d cite Michael Polanyi’s useful binaries “attending from” and “attending to”, paralleling Richard Lanham’s “looking at” the form of expression, vs. “looking through” the form (made invisible and subsidiary through habit) to its meaning – colored as it invariably must be by everything which remains implicit, oblique, contextual, allusive. Rhetoric, poetry, art .. benefits of the classical liberal or Renaissance humanist education. As Blake says, “God keep us from Single Vision and Newton’s sleep!”

      [ “tableau” corrected according to Derek’s latest emailed comment ]

    5. larrydunbar Says:

      Sorry, that wasn’t the point. I was thinking that you are right they have an array of structures, but they must be similar in structure as butterfly wings, and the technique is similar as observing those butterfly wings flapping in South America, and understanding the flapping is going to cause a hurricane somewhere. 

    6. Charles Cameron Says:

      Hi, Justin:
      I guess a lot depends on what you and I each mean by “unexpected”.   I don’t think ACH works to dispel deep-seated group-think, does it?  I’m thinking of things like the idea pre-Pasteur that “microbes” might be involved in disease processes, of the likelihood of personal computers around the time that Watson predicted the world might need six of his huge machines…
      My personal hobby-horse, as you know, is apocalyptic movements — but would ACH or Bayesian analysis have predicted that hundreds of Hmong Christians might be massacred and their pastors beheaded in the aftermath of a California-based {edited to add: end times] preacher in 2011, or that a Malaysian Islamic sect would gather “a huge cache of swords, gunpowder and other weaponry” in preparation for the 2012 end of the Mayan calendar cycle?
      What about the current “jihad” turning into a full-fledged Mahdist movement?  Would that include a sweep down from Pakistan into India (the Ghazwa-e-Hind)?  Pakistani nukes falling into Mahdist hands?  What would the impact be in Europe, Israel, the US, Nigeria? I’ve been trying to track this stuff for a decade or more, and I still wouldn’t know how to write anything more than the bare bones of a scenario set…
      I’m probably expressing myself poorly — “anything” is a pretty vague term. I guess what I’m after is big surprises from outside the entire cultural mindset… 

    7. Justin Boland Says:

      Appreciate the brainfood, as always.
      All tools can be poorly used, and in the real world, perhaps they mostly are. I do think that the efficacy of Bayes depends a great deal on who is applying it and how. (In most respects, my interests abide on the Qualitative side of the fence, too.) While Operations Research could be reduced to binders full of checklists and flowcharts, it was still exceptional human beings who got the best results. Same goes for baseball.
      One of my personal hobby-horse concepts is exploratory vs. confirmatory research & thinking patterns. My favorite part of that paradox is how easy — and rhetorically “true” — it is to dismiss exploratory work as mere tautology, Excel work for interns. Yet there’s still so much demand for thinkers like Edward Tufte or Nathan Yau, and so much power in those animated presentations that Hans Rosling does around the world these days.
      I revel in the unexpected wrinkles you’re bringing up as examples, though, and happily concede there is no reliable means of predicting such events. Still, we primates do have a solid grasp of the fundamental constraints and cycles that shape our human lives. I suspect that as available data continues to scale up and go public, exploratory approaches will continue to yield strange surprises.
      I was probably expressing myself poorly, too: I just wanted to convey that “blowback” is not news to anyone in any hemisphere in 2013 and should be an integral part of these simulation, war gaming, think tanking exercises by now. You are too right that the “structured tools” I was referring to are generally applied in the service of predetermined conclusions. I’m just wary of quantum post-modernism as escape clause for willful negligence.

    8. Justin Boland Says:

      Still chewing on this, can’t help it.
      In order for humans to learn from history, it has to actually be available to us. That’s really not the case with the consequences of state decisions. Mao’s Great Famine still hasn’t even been acknowledged as a fact by the CPC, and it’s equally impossible to get an independent evaluation of the SOF experiments in the GWOT. (I don’t see this as a matter of ideology, just struture. Not implying some occult isomorphism between China and the Pentagon.) We are simply told that it is working, a relationship that pretty much defines the political role of the American citizen these days.
      The mystery isn’t just a matter of inherent complexity, it’s also a matter of deliberate obfuscation. Our understanding of consequences, long-term, second-order, real-world, could be greatly enhanced by more honest and transparent leadership and more available data. Of course, those circumstances are so far removed from reality I’m doing a thought experiment in an alternate Universe now.

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