Intended clouds and unintended consequencesThursday, March 19th, 2015
[ by Charles Cameron — this post is mostly concerned with unintended consequences in foreign policy, not Berndnaut Smilde‘s intended and dramatic clouds, but hey! ]
Obama said in an interview on Vice this week:
ISIL is a direct outgrowth of Al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion. Which is an example of unintended consequences. Which is why we should generally aim before we shoot.
As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.
In international relations, at least, none of our theories are all that powerful, the data are often poor, and coming up with good solutions to many thorny problems is difficult. Unintended consequences and second-order effects abound, and policymakers often reject good advice for their own selfish reasons.
Before the discovery of Australia, people in the Old World were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird.
unpredictable instability is the new normal
Let me list them:
unintended consequences known and unknown unknowns second-order effects black swans unpredictable instability
Are these all what you might call “birds of a feather”?
Taleb also said:
Viagra, which changed the mental outlook and social mores of retired men, was meant to be a hypertension drug. Another hypertension drug led to a hair-growth medication. My friend Bruce Goldberg, who understands randomness, calls these unintended side applications “corners.” While many worry about unintended consequences, technology adventurers thrive on them.
Mandelbrot’s fractals allow us to account for a few Black Swans, but not all. I said earlier that some Black Swans arise because we ignore sources of randomness. Others arise when we overestimate the fractal exponent. A gray swan concerns modelable extreme events, a black swan is about unknown unknowns.
It strikes me that we could use a Venn diagram of these things, so we can better understand what we don’t understand.
So let’s add a couple more to our list:
corners cloud of unknowing
The anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, speaking of God, says:
For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.