Imagine if you will a time on a day in a city of learning in Europe in 1696. Imagine too that you are a celebrated learned man of science.
And on this day in a public podium during a conference of distinguished scientists you had a sudden insight. The insight was so startling that you uttered it out – why can’t swans be black?
To which the audience suddenly went quiet before bursting out in laughter and ridicule. Black swans? Preposterous! Everyone knows that there is no such thing as a black swan. All swans are white. Perhaps our comrade has been an academic for too long and his thinking is confused. Any practical, field scientist will tell you black swans do not exist. What rubbish!!!
Soon the entire academic circle has heard about your preposterous utterance. Suddenly, everything you say whether right or wrong is scorned because the image of the black swan has overshadowed every other thing. People just can’t see beyond the black swan. They are obsessed, attached to the notion that you are all about the black swan. In their mind they know that all swans are white and that there is no such thing as black swans. The possibility that they do not know that they do not know that there are black swans has simply not entered their mind.
1696. The frigate De Geelvink under Willem de Vlamingh departed Amsterdam to the west coast of Australia on a rescue mission.
10 January 1697. Willem de Vlamingh arrived at the mouth of a river in the south west of today’s Western Australia. He ventured up the river but not before naming it Zwaanenrivier which is Dutch for Swan River, after the number of black swans he observed there.
An engraving showing Willem de Vlamingh’s ships
with black swans at the entrance to Swan River.
In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, then the US Secretary of Defense, in a briefing for the Department of Defense used phrases that captured in a nutshell the hypothetical situation I have written above.
Moral of the lesson – do not be too quick to dismiss that which you do not know that you do not even know that you do not know. Far from demonstrating your superior intellect and knowledge you may end up exposing your ignorance.