In February 2002, in the context of lack of evidence linking Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with weapons of mass destruction, the then United States Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld said, “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.”

It drew tremendous public attention, although the idea itself was quite old. In 1955, psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham developed the concept of “Johari window”, which helps people better understand their relationship with themselves and others. Irish philosopher Charles Handy interpreted it as the “Johari House with four rooms”, where the known known room is the arena – the part we and others see; known unknown is the façade – the private space we know but hide from others; unknown known being the blind spot – containing aspects that others see but we are unaware of; and unknown unknown is the unconscious part of us that neither ourselves nor others see.

The Johari Window. Credit: Simon Shek/Wikipedia (Public Domain)

Animal metaphors

There have been repeated attempts to characterise the Covid-19 pandemic using animal metaphors. First, as a “Black Swan”, an idea popularised by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb to indicate a low-probability, high-impact event. Although most swans are white, black swans appear occasionally, are notoriously difficult to predict, and its impact can be devastating.

Taleb discussed these ideas in his books Fooled by Randomness in 2001 and The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable in 2007. Examples of such events, according to Taleb, included the 9/11 attacks, development of the internet and personal computers, World War I, and dissolution of the Soviet Union, among others. He opined, “A small number of Black Swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.”

People quickly understood that a Black Swan may be an example of the unknown unknown. Does Covid-19 qualify as such an event?

The World Health Organisation tracked 1,483 epidemics in 172 countries between 2011-’18 and we have had a big-size epidemic every two to four years. Mark Honigsbaum’s 2019 book The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria, and Hubris not only revisits important global outbreaks – such as the Spanish flu, parrot fever, plague, Legionnaires Disease, SARS, HIV/AIDS, Ebola and Zika – but interrogates their social and cultural catalysts and scientific blind spots.

In September 2019, the World Health Organisation put out a press release with the headline: “World at Risk from Deadly Pandemics”. It is predicted that “an outbreak equivalent to the 1918 influenza pandemic could kill an estimated 50 [million] to 80 million people...wiping out nearly five percent of the global economy.”

Again, infectious diseases were cited as one of the leading causes of risks for 2020 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report. A year ago, healthcare leader Merck Sharp & Dohme cautioned that infectious disease outbreaks with potentially tragic consequences are a “certainty”. Thus, the coronavirus outbreak was among “knowns” – it was anticipated, at least by experts. The unknown parts were its exact timing and impact.

The invention of the computer, 9/11 attacks and the First World War are examples of Black Swan events. Credit: Flickr/Wikipedia

Consequently, people started to call the pandemic a “Grey Rhino”, indicating highly probable but neglected threats that have an enormous impact. This fashionable term was used by author Michele Wucker after the 2012 Greek financial crisis and then in her 2016 book The Gray Rhino: How to Recognise and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore. Wucker observed that black rhinos aren’t actually black, white rhinos aren’t actually white; and nobody talked about the most obvious thing – that all rhinos are grey. Philosophically, a grey rhino maybe an example of known knowns.

A third metaphor, “black elephant”, became popular in 2014 when New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman described it a black elephant is a cross between a Black Swan – an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications – and the elephant in the room – a problem widely visible to everyone but one that no one wants to address. Such an event, thus, falls in the category of known unknowns and may not be befitting to describe an event like the coronavirus pandemic.

Understanding post-normalcy

In the context of Rumsfeld’s historical statement, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek in 2004 pointed towards the possibility of “unknown known”, which was subsequently interpreted as “what we do not like to know” by German sociologists Christopher Daase and Oliver Kessler in 2007. However, it may exemplify things we think we know and understand but which turn out to be more complex and uncertain. This category is the most overlooked one as is clear from Rumsfeld’s comment.

Yes, a pandemic like Covid-19 was on the cards, but post-normal phenomena are often impossible to foresee. A useful example is the Black Jellyfish, which has the potential of going post-normal by escalating rapidly.

Increasing oceanic temperatures and acidity levels due to climate change may create perfectly favourable conditions for jellyfish populations to rapidly increase, leading to blocked water inlets and forcing power stations at coastal power plants and nuclear reactors to shut down. This happened in the Oskarshamn plant in Sweden, the site of one of the world’s largest nuclear reactors, in 2013. Leading jellyfish expert Lisa-Ann Gershwin’s 2013 book Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean may be an interesting read in this context.

Jellyfish blooms, thus, provide the ideal representation of post-normalcy in the unthought future. Can Black Jellyfish be the best metaphor for this pandemic – an unknown known? In any case, the world seems utterly unprepared – it seems to have not learned enough lessons from the past. Hopefully the post-Covid-19 world will not refrain from doing reality checks for jellyfish regularly.

Also Read:

Does the Covid-19 pandemic meet the three-level check to be termed a black swan event?

Atanu Biswas is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.