I know that you know that you don’t know

How many of us assume too much about what we know? The human race is obsessed with its knowledge. In The Black Swan, Nassim Nocholas Taleb take an example of people laughing at primates in a zoo, looking at their funny impersonations of humans and their primitiveness. But it’d be quite sobering if those people knew that some species far superior to them were looking and laughing at them.

Civilizations have risen and fallen, and what we easily forget is that they all thought they were the bees knees and the primal wolfs howl. We look at them now and we laugh, but a thousand years later (if we last that long) when the internet is a relic, we’ll undoubtedly be laughed at by humans who consider themselves far superior to us.

The Black Swan

This is an even that is 1) completely inconceivable before it happens, 2) causes much chaos when it happens and 3) is explainable retrospectively. Works like this: People imagined all swans to be white. All they could see were white swans and no one had ever seen anything different; so the lack of evidence to prove the existence of a black swan was taken as proof of no evidence of a black swan. All that changed of course, when they discovered the existence of an actual black swan.

Take your pick of latest global/local major events; 9/11, the Financial Crisis, The Asian Tsunami, the end of the EELAM war, the 18th amendment etc. all Black Swans. Taleb’s argument is that the majority of the world’s events rest entirely on these Black Swans. Most of the impact to our world happens because of these unpredictable events. And therefore most models like the Gaussian Bell Curve and Modern Portfolio Theory are redundant when it comes to actually telling us anything about how the world works.

He also underscores the role of luck. And the Casanova syndrome. Casanova was a player (the womanizing variety) who considered himself to be somewhat of a scholar. The problem with Casanova was that he was always in money problems. But, by virtue of his wit, charm and sycophancy he would always find a way to bounce back. Naturally this caused him to speak somewhat boastfully of his innate capabilities and traits that gave him much resilience in the face of difficulty. But Taleb’s argument is that this was all a result of one thing; simple luck.

To illustrate he points to all the other players who would have constantly got into trouble but eventually found that they didn’t have anyone to pull them out of it. They all perished on the way and so, were never heard of again. And since we only heard Casanova’s boastful argument, and don’t really know how many close shaves he may have had in getting there, and how many of his breaks were due to things he actually did, we automatically assume him to be some sort of superman. And lap up his latest book on how to stay out of financial troubles by virtue of one’s wit.

Distorted History

The silent evidence never gets highlighted because historians never look at the graveyard. Only the survivors are present n the history books. We only know the results of history or the forward process, we do not know the  backward process of it.

For example, keep an ice cube on the floor and watch it turn into a puddle of water. Now ask someone who just walked into the room to tell you how that puddle came to exist. He’d come up with all sorts of theories to explain its existence. Some one could have spilled it, the roof may have leaked. Even if he hits upon an ice cube. He’d be hard pressed to tell you the shape of that ice cube. Similarly with history. To quote:

The first direction, from the ice cube to the puddle, is called the forward process. The second direction the backward process, is much much more complicated. The forward process is generally used in physics and engineering the backward process in nonrepeatable, nonexperimental historical approaches.

All we can see when we look back are the outcomes of history. The inputs we decide ourselves by analyzing other factors and creating a narrative that sort of explains the result we see. This is the narrative fallacy.

Take the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The end of the war in itself was somewhat of a Black Swan. At the time it was totally unexpected, Its impact was significant on our lives, and it was immediately explainable retrospectively. A lot of talk went around about the specifics of our battle strategy, the integrity of the leadership and the bravery of our soldiers went around. But was that all?

The change in the geopolitical landscape undoubtedly helped. In the emergence of China as a global power interested in engaging in its own brand of neo-colonization, the government found a ready ally to completely aid it in pursuing the LTTE. Unlike the cessationist and inconsistent support of the UN, the US and Western Alliance; countries like Iran, China and India were readily supportive of a quick end to the Sri Lankan conflict so they could move in for their ound of flesh. I’m not saying this is precisely the scenario, but geopolitical change did create a big difference to the levels of freedom Mahinda had. Other reasons could have contributed to the war’s end too. But we may never know all of them.

Knowing that we don’t know

We are generally epstemologically arrogant. That is self satisfied and protective of what we know. This is what makes us carry out engaging conversations at parties and at tea shops. Having an opinion makes use feel good and anything that challenges that opinion we try to fight off tooth and nail. Sometimes it’s better to just have an opinion but be very open to the fact that you may be wrong. Saying ‘I don’t know’ is nothing to be ashamed of. It maybe even intellectually superior to clinging onto some idea for which you don’ have the full facts. Worse, you might not even know that you don’t know and be one of those particularly difficult type of individuals to have a meaningful conversation with.

  1. Jerry said:


    Shaa, look at you using big words now that you have a dictionary on that kindle 😛

    Interesting post. If you really think about it, aren’t black swans pretty frequent? Anybody can create one, yes? For example, I could say something completely unexpected on this comment. Like, “you have hairy legs”. It might not change the history of the world but it would be unforeseen, cause much chaos and be explainable retrospectively(kinda).

  2. Chavie said:

    I just came here to read Jerry’s comment and LOL. 😀

    The easiest thing to do at parties is to smile, nod and shut up. 😉

  3. SPIDER-PIG!!!

    Ah… chaos, panic, disorder… My work here is done.

  4. Whacko said:

    Jerry – You forgot sycophancy

    Chavie – Yeah that would be an option at parties man, but then that generally destroys the point of going doesn’t it? and i like you better when your comments are positive 😛

    Meg – er, what?

  5. Chavie said:

    hahaha O;)

  6. PravNJ said:

    “We are generally epstemologically arrogant..” old news.Literally. Most academics would disagree with you. I don’t about you but I always try to avoid falling into such traps? Experts on TV? now thats an entirely different matter.

    Agree with you on the point about China and no-colonoization. But due credit was given to the Chinese with regard to the “help” they provided. Perhaps the masses failed to realize this?

    Machang what have you been smoking? whoever said the Gaussian distributions reliably predicted/explained geopolitical events? more like random signal analysis, game theory and punk-eek theory but even they are really limited.

    Great point on the narrative fallacy. But I don’t know, I think some people are a lot smarter when it comes to not falling into such traps but then again the masses tend to fall into such traps hmm..take false dichotomies. Most politicians would not be in power if the people were smart enough to not fall into such traps.

    Been reading your posts as of recent 🙂 good stuff

    • Whacko said:

      well i think epistemological arrogance is all too common actually. we run into it on a day to day basis, even among the academia. How many books and theories have you read that claim to be the only solution to a given problem (with of course the caveats of a myriad assumptions?), and of course the Bell can never really explain anything undeniably, beig an approximation even in mathematics. But the point NNT was trying to raise in the book was that too many decisions are based on conclusions reached via the use of bell curves and that epistemological arrogance, narrative fallacies, basic ignorance and possibly the human instinct to delude with a false sense of security lead us to think these decisions are right. And thanks for the comments!

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