Sunday, March 22, 2020

Nobody Knows Nuthin’– Black Swan Edition

Warning: There’s Always a Black Swan Somewhere Ahead

"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." -  Donald Rumsfeld, 2002

This is undoubtedly Rumsfeld’s most famous, as well as most derided, quote. The media, predisposed towards disdain for George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, didn’t even attempt to comprehend what he was telling them. Instead they ridiculed his statement as “word salad.” If however you have at least a working knowledge of classic risk assessment technique/models – which most journalists do not - Rumsfeld’s statement would seem both perfectly logical and linguistically correct.

Human endeavors are riddled with knowns and unknowns.

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That’s why decisions are seldom perfect. Risk analysis helps sort through what you do know, assess the impact of things you don’t and direct you to the best decision based on a thorough evaluation of circumstances, facts and hypotheses. Many methodologies exist for coaxing data from the first 3 quadrants, but only imagination will help you discover what you don’t yet know.

Which is why novelists predicted a 9-11 event, the financial meltdown and countless examples of worldwide pandemics but apparently nobody actually responsible for averting such disasters ever conceived of them. Such disasters have come to known as Black Swan events: an extremely rare, unpredictable event with severe consequences. With the benefit of hindsight people who lacked the imagination to envision such a calamity  will claim that the Black Swan should have been predictable.

But we are in the middle of the maelstrom, having not yet arrived at the point of perfect knowledge known as hindsight. If we’re not driving blind we’re certainly operating with impaired sight. And we’ve reached a dark intersection where the knowns have the right of way but there is no guarantee that the unknowns will yield to them.

Hence we have two camps regarding our response to the the coronavirus threat: one camp says we are shutting the country down and ruining the economy for no valid reason, the risk to the general population isn’t that great and it’s much ado about nothing. The other camp contends that this thing, this plague, could decimate the population and requires an abundance of caution. I bounce back and forth, simply because the unknowns at this point remain many and significant. Nobody actually knows.

What we do know, although nobody in authority will admit it, is that this is a man-made disaster. To paraphrase the few scientists who are not (yet) afraid to speak out, the bio-markers of the “novel” Wuhan coronavirus genome are as unlikely to have occurred in nature as a monkey sitting at a keyboard and banging out a Shakespearian play.

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So acting like this is just another flu is insane, especially since the Communist Chinese Party hasn’t told us anything we can trust about the virus’s origin, infection and death rate. Since we don’t know or understand the full extent of this scourge – Europe is just two or three weeks ahead of us so not a reliable model either - we don’t know whether destroying America’s economy is a futile attempt to contain the virus or the only prudent action.

So I sit here with too much time on my hands and no more real knowledge than I had 3 weeks ago. From that vantage point the the shutdown and shelter in place strategy looks like a stalling mechanism, right out of a dystopian novel, to keep the Grim Reaper at bay while we search frantically for a prophylactic and/or cure.

There is nothing worse than the uncertainty of outcomes and the ambiguity of meaning. That there’s been as little panic as there has been is almost commendable.  But the truth is out there and yes, we can handle the truth – even if it’s that nobody knows how this plays out at this point. I do not want a government functionary determining my fate. If the Black Swan has made another appearance we deserve to hear it sooner than later.

But remember, all swans appear black in the dark.

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If the government expects us to follow their diktats - that are sounding more and more like martial law – and isolate in place for weeks or months we deserve to know why this is necessary. Shine a little more light on the pandemic’s prognosis. Tell us everything that is known today; and if nobody knows nuthin’ let us decide how we want to deal with the risks of the unknowns.

Image result for black swans in analysis

For all we know the swan is getting a bum wrap.