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August 10th, 2007
One important lesson imbedded in these historical analogies is that what we don't know is frequently more important than what we do know (or think we know). This seemly innocuous statement is actually quite profound. Here's why. Throughout the book, Taleb offers compelling evidence that people -- especially so-called experts -- tend to overestimate what they know and underestimate the uncertainty that is derived from those things they don't know.
For example, how often have you heard experts in a given field make bold, confident statements? A case in point is the energy industry. These days it is not uncommon to hear specialists in the field say that oil, coal, and natural gas will remain the main source of energy for the next 30 years. Such statements can easily lead investors to believe ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM), Sasol (NYSE: SSL), and Chevron are, and will remain, solid blue-chip investments for the foreseeable future.
The problem is the people making these predictions don't know what they don't know. For example, how much do they know about synthetic genomics, such as BP (NYSE: BP) is now investigating? Is it possible that "designer bacteria" and biomass -- and not oil -- could be a major source of our energy in the future? Or is it possible that one of the nanotechnology companies that Harris & Harris (Nasdaq: TINY) has invested in could produce a breakthrough that could revolutionize solar energy and make it cost-competitive with coal?
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