Known Knowns, Known Unknowns, Unknown Knowns, Unknown Unknowns

Donald Rumsfeld in a 2002 press conference fostered the birth of the memes of “known knowns” and “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” which, to be frank, has long been a mystery to me. So I thought I needed to unpack it today as I can see it’s pretty important when considering the nature of black swans (versus white swans). Apparently it reaches back to the Greek era … I wish I had studied history better when I was younger.

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COVID-19 was a “White Swan”

Nassim Taleb popularized the term “Black Swan” and has recently pointed out that COVID-19 can’t be categorized as such. He said it is a “White Swan” instead. Why? Because C-19 didn’t happen all of a sudden with a lack of predictability — we knew enough about it so that we could enact countermeasures, but many countries didn’t do so. It wasn’t, as he calls it, “an unforeseen problem” – which is his definition of a black swan.

Looking back to the early thoughts of Taleb in 2009 on the ideas of risk are quite interesting, as grounded in an HBR piece he penned with collaborators entitled, The Six Mistakes Executives Make in Risk Management.

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