Active Thinking Topic 22 -  Unknown Unknowns

Monday 4 January 2022, 6:30 pm - 8:30 pm

Any replies to the organizer -

Venue: ZOOM online


Donald Rumsfield (2002) "Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because 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 tends to be the difficult ones". Pentagon press briefing, 2002 - see Wikipedia @  [Thor, comment: History proved that this disastrous US Defence Secretary never penetrated the unknown unknowns of what Vietnamese call "the American war" with its 2 million+ dead]

Focus Questions

1. From your own bubble of ignorance (or mine) have a guess at what you think might be some important unknown unknowns in the world around you (or even the supernatural world around you). How would this kind of speculation influence (or not) the choices you make?

2. What's the stuff of your nightmares and dreams? That is, what do you think could come out of nowhere and turn your life upside down, or even destroy it?

3. Suggest the next plausible black swan event which might smash into us. For most of us, Covid 19 was a black swan event. For some medical researchers it was a grey rhino event. Imagine you are a science fiction writer or futurologist. [A colloquial term for an unknown unknown which leads to an unexpected (often bad) event is "a black swan event". Something which is half suspected but unknown, and leads to an unexpected (often bad ) event are often called "a grey rhino event".]

4. How often is risk rewarded? Why do some people take big calculated risks while others crave security? Where are you on this scale? Consider the life paths of an office assistant and an entrepreneur. Unknown unknowns can affect both of them, but the entrepreneur is deliberately challenging the unknown future by acting on an idea.

5. What are some unknown unknowns (to them) that newly married couples in 2021 might stumble into? Newly married people are always taking a gamble. They know there's a lot they don't know about the future, but maybe think they know about each other...

6. How often do disasters arise from 'unknown unknowns' which were in fact known to some people, but not the right people? Examples? [e.g. see the Tyson Bronwning reference at  ]

7. How do you develop skill for navigating into unknown experience? For example, writing a novel is largely a matter of skillfully managing unknown unknowns as they emerge from the writer's mind as she proceeds (e.g. see in the links below: Lelia Green (October 22, 2019) "Creative writing as a journey into the unknown unknown" III blog @  or Thor May's paper on emergent systems  ).

8. What is the influence of false "knowns" directing attention away from unknown unknowns which might have become known with more open experience or research? For example, it is said that generals always fight the last war they knew about, rather than dealing with new, unexpected emerging technologies. Businesses get locked into known routines, ignoring a changing world. And career research scientists are locked into researching conservatively funded projects.

9. What do you think might be some unknown unknown disruptors in the switch away from carbon based energy? Though it will involve great political, commercial and technical upheaval, the human world is shifting to drive its technology with a new energy mix. In say 1800 the way oil and coal drove the first industrial revolution could hardly have been predicted....

10. As complex robots driven by self-generating AI emerge, how would you expect humans to cope? Complex systems in nature have emerged, following certain constraints but unplanned. The earliest simple life forms on earth could scarcely have anticipated the emergence of human beings. [This contradicts many religious stories].

Extra Reading

Wikipedia (2021) "There are known knowns ..." @ 

Wikipedia (2021) "Black Swan Theory" @ 

Integration and Implementation Insights (2021) Innovation blog @  [This blog contains a whole series of professional articles on dealing with unknown unknowns, especially in science]

Tyson Browning (5 November 2019) "Looking in the right places to identify “unknown unknowns” in projects". III blog @  [Quote: "investigations following major catastrophes (such as space shuttle disasters, train derailments, and terrorist attacks), and project cost and schedule overruns, commonly identify instances where a key bit of knowledge was in fact known by someone working on that project—but failed to be communicated to the project’s top decision makers. In other cases, unknown unknowns emerge from unforeseen interactions among known elements of complex systems, such as product components, process activities, or software systems.]

Lelia Green (October 22, 2019) "Creative writing as a journey into the unknown unknown" III blog @  [Quote: "E. L. Doctorow is credited with saying that writing a novel is “like driving at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way”]

Thor May (2018) "Emergent Systems - An Overview". The Passionate Skeptic website @ 
[Mandarin Chinese translation: 新兴系统--概述  ]

Joseph Guillaume (November 19, 2019) "Blackboxing unknown unknowns through vulnerability analysis". III blog @  [Quote: "What’s a productive way to think about undesirable outcomes and how to avoid them, especially in an unpredictable future full of unknown unknowns? Here I describe the technique of vulnerability analysis, which essentially has three steps:

Step 1: Identify undesirable outcomes, to be avoided
Step 2: Look for conditions that can lead to such outcomes, ie. vulnerabilities
Step 3: Manage the system to mitigate or adapt to vulnerable conditions.

The power of vulnerability analysis is that, by starting from outcomes, it avoids making assumptions about what led to the vulnerabilities". ]

Thor May (2016) "Count your lucky stars". The Passionate Skeptic website @  [Quote: "What part does luck play in the success of individuals, enterprises and countries? Think of examples. From politics to careers to finding the love of your life, there has never been more advice available, yet at the end of the game, some people seem to have been lucky and others not. Why is this so? Can you really do much about it?"]

Wikipedia (2021) "Risk Perception" @  [Thor, comment: This is a useful summary. Particularly interesting to me is the risk that arises from unknown unknowns in cultural systems. All cultures create unique frameworks for what can be asked, when and by whom. Where a project or system fails because of an unknown unknown, you have to ask "unknown to whom?". Very typically somebody knew there was a fatal flaw, but remained unheard. For example, working in China, I found it extremely hierarchical, and also a blame & punishment culture where, as a result, nobody ever accepted real responsibility, and nobody lower in a hierarchy ever took initiatives though they may have had unique knowledge. This could be fatal, for example, in warfare.]

Rick Szostak (January 5, 2021) "Can examining cross-disciplinary interactions illuminate unknown unknowns?" III Blog @  [Quote: "... most disciplines posit some system of stability among the phenomena they study (Szostak 2017). Yet, these systems of stability are often disrupted by interactions with phenomena studied in other disciplines. For example, the market equilibria studied by economists can be disrupted by changes in weather or public tastes or political institutions. ... The crux of my argument is that disciplinary silos generate unknown unknowns".]

Tory Shepherd (Fri 17 Sep 2021) "Game-changer or irresponsible? The known unknowns on Australia’s nuclear submarine deal - Analysis: Stay tuned as we battle the notoriously secret defence establishment to work out what we are getting and when, and maybe why and whether it’s worth it". The Guardian @ 


Unknown Unknowns (c) Thor May 2022

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