Photo by Alfred Schrock on Unsplash

Beware of 2022 Butterflies, Black Swans and Gray Rhinos

Beware of butterflies, black swans, gray rhinos, zippers, stirrups, and the Kessler syndrome.
If you want to understand the past and its effects on the present and the likelihood of impacts on the future above all else be worried about the unknown unknowns and be very, very careful and very, very mindful of what you do, even if it seems trivial at the time because it could have cataclysmic effects on us all.
Fyodor Dostoevesky put it best, when speaking of being aware of all that is going on when he said, “Above all don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him or around him and so loses all respect for himself and for others.”
First, let’s look at the “butterfly effect,” in which a very small change in initial conditions creates a significantly different outcome. The phrase is derived from the example of the flapping of the butterfly wings, a very minor disturbance, that reverberates until it causes a major storm. Some meteorlogists believe that one flap of a sea gull’s wings could be enough to alter the course of the weather forever.
The metaphor applies to a person telling a small mistruth, or a butterfly comment, which is translated by another who embellishes it and on and on until a major false belief becomes widespread and destructive and the butterfly has caused a tornado of lies.
Black swans are unpredictable events in history, science, finance and technology that have potentially severe consequences that are often rationalized in hindsight. Black swan events, though extreme outliers, play much larger roles than regular occurrences, according to the statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In other words, don’t underestimated seemingly minor situations, like the increase in the use of cell phones in cars.
Grey rhinos are those concepts that have highly probable, high impacts but pose neglected threats. An example was the effort to tighten financial regulations and reduce risk in China in 2017 that led to investors selling stocks perceived as risky, sending the Chinese stock index plummeting.
In the same backyard as the butterfly is the cascading failure when failure of just a few small, interconnected parts of a larger system, trigger the failure of other parts leading to disastrous effects on many systems. Such a failure may happen in many types of systems, including power transmission, computer networking, finance, transportation systems, organisms, the human body, and ecosystems. Think how damaging the deaths of the tiny honeybees are to the overall ecosystem.
Cascading failures are similar to the zipper effect, a situation in larger structures in which the failure of just one structural component increases the load on adjacent members, leading to a catastrophic breakdown. That breakdown was shown at the deadly 1981 collapse of the Hyatt Regency walkway in Kansac City, Mo., and is at work in the collapse of confidence in the democratic system. In the walkway disaster, a single vertical suspension rod failed, leading to overloads on sequential rods and collapse. In a democracy, a change in voting laws can cascade into widespread disenfranchisement.
Which leads to the great stirrup controversy, a theory that explains how the simple advent of the saddle stirrup lead to the widespread use of heavy cavalry in combat, which had huge effects on warfare in the 8th and 9th centuries. Intellectuals have challenged that the stirrup was not the eventual cause of extensive wars but the impetus was really social changes. A modern day example of the saddle stirrup theory is the development of the tiny, computer chip, which was the catalyst for development of all electronic equipment, from cell phones to ballistic missiles.
Another morality tale is the so-called Kessler syndrome, a scenario in which the growth of pollution in space from relatively small pieces of flotsam debris from past and disintegrating satellites in low Earth orbit could cause a cascade of collisions that increases the likelihood of further and larger collisions.
And then we have to consider unintended consequences when the outcomes of an action are unforeseen. It can mean a positive unexpected benefit, like exploration of a planet and discovery of life. Or it can have unexpected drawbacks, like the advent of the Internet and the explosion of on-line pornography or creation of new irrigation plans followed by increases in waterborne diseases. And then there are perverse results that are contrary to original intentions, as in development of military drones that lead to more expanded attacks and deaths of civilians or creation of new medicines that are of immediate benefits but later show severe side effects, as in the vast over prescription of opioid medications. Then again, there have been positive, unforeseen side effects as with Viagra, first developed to lower blood pressure and later found to be effective in treating erectile dysfunction.
And finally, there is the threat of those unknown unknowns, famously referred to by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in response to a question at a news briefing on Feb. 12, 2002, about the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. Rumsfeld was mocked for using what some considered to be meaningless phrase. But he was actually stating a rather important and profound truth.
“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,” Rumsfeld said. “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. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.”
Hopefully 2022 won’t show any major unknown unknowns but history shows that we likely will see such unknowns and the challenge is to try and identify and understand and deal with them before they happen.

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Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer

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Phil Garber

Phil Garber

Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer

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