Some may be infuriated, others amused, that I begin this post on domains of uncertainty and scenario thinking with a six-year-old clip from Donald Rumsfeld. I trust sober readers will get past any emotional reactions to the messenger and hear the message itself.
It is simply true: there are things that cannot be known no matter how hard we try because we don't even know they exist to be known. We can surmise, but that may not be enough. We may be highly selective and discerning in our surmising and yet... there will always be something beyond our ken -- beyond our ability to conceive, much less persuade others. (If you think that statement is false, consider whether your certainty is not, itself, a blind spot!)
Interestingly, Northrop-Grumman has applied for a patent on a computer system to identify unknown unknowns. (H/T: New Scientist). That invites a whole separate post.
There are many ways in which this idea can be applied. I want to focus on one in particular -- complex adaptive systems (though that term covers a great deal) -- and to exclude for the time being those applications pertaining solely to physical phenomena (e.g., weather forecasting, protein folding, etc.) I want to focus exclusively on human systems.
By virtue of free will, almost anything involving two or more human beings is adaptive. By virtue of consciousness and cognition it is also complex (think marriage; think commerce; think geopolitics). Such systems may behave in stable ways for long periods of time, however observed de facto stability does not prove their inherent or permanent stability. They always harbor the potential to behave in ways that are not only unpredictable, but difficult to credit in advance; perhaps even difficult to imagine.
Oh sure, a handful of well-studied, creatively inclined, or simply prolific individuals (often at the margins of a domain) can usually be identified in hindsight as having imagined some new state of things with a degree of accuracy that seems almost prescient. Backwards-looking identification of the best predictors isn't terribly useful though -- unless it also validates a hidden capability likely to be of value in the future. That is, unless it uncovers hidden forecasting talent.
Often, the apparent Cassandras or Jeremiahs (or their Pollyanna opposites) are not prophetically accurate at all. They're one-hit wonders. Backwards identification of faux-forecasting ability is the more common paradigm. It can be actively misleading if an individual was simply lucky. Not all fund managers who make a few good picks go on to become Warren Buffet or Peter Lynch. Individuals like them (or like Jules Verne and Michelangelo) are the exceptions that prove the rule: most science fiction and fantasy is doomed to remain fictional and fantastic.
All of this is as wind-up to my pointing y'all to a magnificently insightful (if poorly edited) essay from Nassim Nicholas Taleb ("The Fourth Quadrant: A Map of the Limits of Statistics") which I missed when it came out in September. I'm told it draws heavily from his book 'The Black Swan...', which I have not read but feel like I have because so many people have told me about it. He takes those concepts forward to cover the recent mortgage/banking/financial/economic/societal crisis and point out something we scenario planners live and breathe: forecasting based on history only gets you so far. I'll leave it there for now. Go check it out and let me know what you think.