It is the very nature of the unexpected that makes sports so exciting. At the recent downhill race in Kitzbühel, the overwhelming favorite, Aksel Lund Svindal - two-time overall World Cup champion, winner of the previous week’s downhill on the demanding Wengen course and winner of four downhill races this season - crashed out at the bottom of the course. At the recent Australian Open tennis tournament, an overwhelming favorite, Serena Williams, going for her 22nd Slam title and the dominant female player for the past 15 years, lost to a lower- ranked player who had never won a major tournament. True Svindal had missed almost the entire 2015 season due to injury; true Williams had lost to a relative unknown in the semi-finals of last year’s French Open, but still, the crash and loss were unexpected.
How to deal with the unexpected? Pollsters are expected to tell us how voters will perform, but most of them were wrong in the Iowa caucuses. Financial advisors are supposed to help us decide where to place our money, but as the movie “The Big Short” shows, most brokers missed what was going to happen. What is the relationship between the known and the unknown?
At a news briefing in February 2002, in response to a question about the government of Iraq and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said: “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.”
“Unknown unknowns”? In ski racing there are falls, in tennis there are upsets. Svindal’s fall and Williams’ defeat are part of the knowns about what can happen: not very likely, but still possible. We just don’t know if and when they will happen.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was improbable: there were no predictions by experts or alternative scenarios for the startling events of 1989, but still it was possible. Countries have broken apart in history; empires have disappeared. The Arab Spring was not accurately predicted, although we knew that there was a growing discontent among the population in the region. We all take out health and accident insurances in case of events we cannot definitively predict, but we know the general category of what might happen. These are all “known unknowns.”
What do we not know we don’t know? “Unknown unknowns are risks that are so out of this world that they never occur to you…they cannot be anticipated based on past experience or investigation,” according to product management fundamentals and engineering experts. They are “outside the box” of what we think will happen based on the categories and paradigms with which we are familiar. We cannot write about “unknown unknowns” because by writing about them they become somehow known.
What is more interesting, and about which we can write, is the category of “unknown knowns” developed by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. He describes “unknown knowns” as those ideas we do know but refuse to admit or make public. These would include practices we know about or suspect, but that we put to the back of our minds. The debate over whether the sun turns around the earth or the earth around the sun was fought over a belief system that did not correspond to objective reality. The heliocentric vision became imbued with theological ramifications which defied rational discussion and closed scientific inquiry for years.
Known knowns are not a problem. We know what we know. Known unknowns drive us to learn more because we know we can learn more. About unknown unknowns we can say nothing since we don’t know what we don’t know or can know. It is the known unknowns that are the most worrying; they stifle investigation and exacerbate the distance between our thoughts, values and the world outside.
How to overcome this cognitive dissonance is most perplexing. Why don’t we want to know? Why aren’t we curious? How long did it take to finally accept that the sun was the center of our system? How do values and practices finally change?
Besides death and taxes, we can always count on change. The problem is why we can’t accept that and learn how to accept change. How to go from unknown knowns to known knowns?