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Uncertainty and the Humility of Forecasting an Unknowable Future

Uncertainty and the Humility of Forecasting an Unknowable Future

While we’re being reassured that all these grandiose promises are resting on trends that are as reliably predictable as the tides, the next easily predictable crisis will very likely reveal the trends are speculative bubbles that will predictably burst in a devastating reversion.

Certainty and uncertainty come in a variety of flavors. “Certainty” seems rather definite, but lurking beneath certainty is the more scientifically verifiable notion of probability: the probability of outcomes can be high enough to qualify as certain and low enough to qualify as unlikely.

We can’t know with perfect certainty that our neighbor hasn’t invented a death-ray and may decide to test it on us due to that simmering feud over his dog Fluffy’s antics on our yard.

But we can make an assessment of the probability of this occurring, and conclude the probability is low with a high degree of certainty.

This assessment should change, of course, if we hear strange noises in his shop and notice shrubs in his back yard are now charred in peculiarly symmetric circles–and we learn he previously worked at a national lab on high-energy weapons but was dismissed for pursuing crazy ideas about developing handheld death-ray devices, i.e. phasers. (Star Trek fans, please raise a cheer.)

This brings us to a critical distinction between low-probability events, i.e. known unknowns a.k.a. highly unlikely “long-tail” events, and unknown unknowns, a.k.a. “black swans” made famous by author Nassim Taleb.

What is a known unknown? Death qualifies as a known unknown: we know with a high degree of certainty that the vast majority of living things eventually die (even cancer cells die once their host dies)–but the timing of their individual natural death is inherently uncertain, due to the great number of inputs, variables and causal factors intrinsic to life.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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