Those we don’t know we don’t know or why specialization is the biggest problem in the world

Reports that say something didn’t happen are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are “known knowns”; There are things we know we know. We also know that there are “known unknowns”; This means that we know that there are some things that we do not know. But there are also “unknown unknowns” – those that we do not know and do not know.

Donald RumsfeldUS Secretary of Defense,
Department of Defense briefing on February 12, 2002

I’ve drawn a diagram of this constellation below. I love drawing diagrams because they often point out things we miss. The things we miss can cause all kinds of problems. In this case, what was missing from Rumsfeld’s statement (and his thinking?) was an “unknown piece of information.” These are the things we don’t know but we can know, because others know them. “Anonymous information” is also called ignorance and is often the result of certainty or faith.

The whole quad looks like this

The vertical axis deals with your knowledge (or your organization’s knowledge) versus the knowledge of others. This axis should be easy to work with except in cases where someone thinks they know more or less than they actually do, which can cause some confusion about where the true zero is. Above, we have the stuff you know. Below, we’ve got the stuff you don’t know but others (probably) do. Horizontal deals with the world or reality. Some things are known about reality such as the current weather, the past history of stock prices, the law of gravity, etc. Some things about reality are unknown such as future interest rates, future government policies, future technology, etc. Personal planner. For example, your knowledge may be my ignorance; What would be a surprise to me may be prophetic to you given your greater understanding of personal knowledge or knowledge of reality. The more you personally know, the less you know, but more importantly, the more expectations you have and the fewer surprises you will encounter.
One particularly profound source of personal ignorance and surprise is specialization. Specialization leads a person to the upper right corner where he knows everything and knows nothing. People might be surprised to learn this, but despite often being asked for their opinions on current events, actors generally don’t know much about politics while they do know a lot about acting. 😛 . The same applies to other professions. Perhaps the most dangerous example is that of the world. Scientists or researchers are professionally rewarded for their productivity which is measured by the number of publications in prestigious journals. While there is a lot of emphasis on work-life balance and fun alternative hobbies, those who focus 100% of their energy on their specialty ultimately get the promotion. This has led to many highly focused intellectuals each leading a specialized understanding of a narrow part of the world but few linking it all together. The result is that professionals find it difficult to communicate with the wider public and even with each other. There are no individually organized human beings capable of learning everything there is to know anymore. For example, there were philosophers. Philosophers will think about the world. Then the philosophers divided into natural and “other” philosophers. Natural philosophers later became mathematicians, physicists, chemists, astronomers, geologists, biologists… and not long after that these too split. Therefore, today it is very difficult to put knowledge into context.

Therefore, putting things into context is not done by individuals. Rather, this is done through procedures or authorization by the system. The problem now is that specialization has given rise to a situation where it is implicitly assumed that there is always a “they” who can solve any problem. Global Warming? “They” will think of something! Influenza epidemics? “They” will think of something! Running out of oil? “They” will think of something!

The problem is that there is no “they” in charge of the world. “They” may be able to fix isolated problems like gas chromatography of earwax, but they are unable to solve a systemic problem. Systems have inertia. Too much inertia. Have you ever wondered why English as it is taught in schools focuses on text analyzes often done by crazy people, you know, writers, rather than grammar, essay writing, newspaper articles, or just letters? Students basically imitate English professors, who imitate medieval monasteries, who imitate ancient Greek philosophers. (Read more here). Architecture is another example. Why do major institutions have Doric columns that imitate the stone facades of Greek temples and which again imitate the wooden columns of simpler huts? Why do universities still hold seminars dating back to a time when communications were so slow and expensive that students could not buy their own textbooks? It is a systemic inertia and the reason for the systemic inertia is that there is no “they” in charge of the operations.

This becomes a big problem when it comes to future planning. For example, financial planning is mostly based on historical returns even though everyone warns us that past results are no guarantee of future returns. The question we should ask ourselves is not what are the known unknowns, for example whether the future returns of stock market indices are 4%, 8%, or 12%, but rather what are the known unknowns? Will democracy still exist in 30 years? Is the dollar worth anything? Will the focus be on barter rather than monetary exchange? Will everyone be entrepreneurs and not employees? Will World War III happen? Will people be expected to grow their own food or will food be provided in the form of green soybeans through pipelines? Few retirement plans in the form of 401(k)s, IRAs, SEPs, etc. make provisions for this, because financial planners, unfortunately, are experts in financial planning.

There are two strategies to follow here. What’s comfortable is to follow the crowd and do what everyone else is doing. This is safe in the psychological sense. Note, for example, that because so many people were stupid and speculating about the eternal growth of real estate prices, they got a bailout. Individuals do not achieve this success because democracy does not care much about individuals. However, individuals are smarter and more resilient than crowds, so this leads to an alternative strategy which I prefer. But this strategy is not just about raising a million dollars. It is also about the situation where money doesn’t buy anything.

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Originally published on 2008-03-17 07:12:24.

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