This is largely just a collection of quotes:

The Black Elephant is an unholy union of two boardroom clichés: the Elephant in the Room, the thing which everyone knows is important, but no one will talk about; and the Black Swan, the hard-to-predict event which is outside the realm of normal expectations, but has enormous impact. The Black Elephant is an event which was quite foreseeable, which was in fact an Elephant in the Room, but which after it happens, everyone will try to pass off as a Black Swan.

A: Dougald Hine | Black Elephants and Skull Jackets | A Conversation with Vinay Gupta

“There are a herd of environmental black elephants gathering out there” — global warming, deforestation, ocean acidification, mass extinction and massive fresh water pollution. “When they hit, we’ll claim they were black swans no one could have predicted, but, in fact, they are black elephants, very visible right now…. We’re just not dealing with them at the scale necessary. If they all stampede at once, watch out.”

B: NYT Herd of Stampeding Black Elephants

So to be clear: a black elephant is a known, or suspected, highly dangerous but not yet overtly current problem, which many people, especially powerful ones, do not want to see, or which they downplay hoping it is trivial, exaggerated, improbable or going to occur after it’s not their responsibility.

“In terms of sustainability, there are two questions. Sustain what? And then, can we sustain those things? Right now, more or less the whole of the debate focuses on whether we can sustain hyper-consumption – and the answer is no, of course not. Something is going to give: oil, climate,topsoil, some other factor we’re not even paying attention to. You can’t just burn the earth’s natural resources like a gasflare on an oil rig forever…. climate is just the first of a long list of things that can and eventually will go wrong.”


These ecological, production and consumption problems make up a horde of black elephants, but powerful people appear to lose out if we do anything about them, and we are helped to be comfortable ourselves by ignoring them, or by pretending they are not looming. The powerful do not have to push us that hard to get us to pretend there is no problem or to act half-heartedly about all these problems.

“the power that financiers and corrupt politicians still hold in setting the limits on what we can and cannot destroy in nature — as opposed to the scientists and biologists — remains the bad news.”


And again this is a black elephant. It is pretty obviously not sensible to have the world run by financiers or business, when what they finance destroys the land we are standing on.

Sometimes black elephants were possibly quite normal things or processes which have just grown up with us, and many people have not caught up to realise that the normal has become abnormal. Nearly everyone says, “oh Elephants are only 2 ft tall… and there is only one of them, and its really cute.”

Perhaps black elephants are created by human cognitive and social processes. One writer remarks that science is full of black elephants:

The scientific world is a sprawling and untidy place whose inhabitants practise their craft in myriad ways. Attempts are periodically made to bring order to this world by building model homes in it, so to speak, and declaring that what’s inside is what science is really like – all the activities outside being imperfect versions. That way, we can easily teach it and tell outsiders what it’s about.

Two such homes are particularly attention-grabbing. The first is orderly, its atmosphere logical, and its disputes calmly resolved by proposing theories and taking data. Experiments are good when they get the true result, wrong when they don’t. This house does not have normal people inside – the inhabitants are so exacting and rule-abiding that they live and act quite differently from the rest of us. Discoveries made inside this house are universal, reflecting truths about nature outside. This house was built by traditional philosophy of science.

Another house was erected in reaction to the first. Its inhabitants behave exactly as non-scientists do, motivated by the same social and psychological forces. Experiments are good when they get a result everyone accepts. What’s found in the room is not universal but local – arising from what’s happening in that room. Obtaining consensus about a result is a matter of swapping interests, like the work of diplomats. This home, built by “social constructivists”, has real people inside but no real nature.

The [models] differ in what they include and omit. The first, to oversimplify, gets rid of human beings, who disrupt the rationality inside the house. The second gets rid of nature, which would resist, define and frustrate the negotiations.

Physics World: Black Elephants

Either model diminishes ‘science’ by creating dangerous black elephants. The first by making science objective, inhuman, valueless or ‘unspiritual’ when we know it is human and made by humans and hence limited and slightly weird, and the second by disconnecting it from reality and making a matter of enforced consensus and desire, when we know the reactions of reality are vital to that consensus (or it cannot be called science) – and you will hear both positions taken by those attempting to discredit some science they don’t like….

Historically it has been quite difficult to speak of science as human and riddled with personal politics, and bias without appearing to discredit the ideals of science, its power, and relatively accurate truth. This inability now reinforces the arguments of those who would listen to nothing but their own short-term interests.

We also know that science is nearly always better when it is not played according to government or commercial policy. That is when people say “We would like this. Make it it so, for us.” Then you get a whole load of finance for projects like turning lead into gold, and pressure to push scientists to pronounce certainty when not enough research has been done, especially to get the product into consumption and make a profit.

This dynamic is another black elephant we hope our world can survive, when it comes to things like genetic modification, biotech and so on (which literally have a life and evolution of their own).

Science also sometimes generates black elephants in that there are non-solvable problems, weird occurrences, or theoretical incoherencies, which scientists ignore, in the hope that they are not significant problems, or that they will somehow turn out to be explicable by the current theory. And sometimes they realise things like an atom bomb could cause the world to ignite or that a hadron collider could produce black holes, but “hey let’s do it anyway!”

One writer points to the consequences of an obvious political Black Elephant that was pretty clearly present, but which it is probable hope got in the way of analysis…

Last year, many of us would have been astonished to learn that the Treasury in the United Kingdom had made no contingency plans for Brexit, despite the fact that the polls showed that the outcome of the referendum would be a close call. The British military – which I presume is like most armed forces and makes contingency plans at the drop of the hat – also reportedly did nothing. 

The black elephant challenge for governments
Peter Ho

That author points to another “obvious problem”

governments often ignore the complexity of their operating environment. They typically deal with complexity as if it is amenable to simple and deterministic, even linear, policy prescriptions. In a sense, the crux of public policy has been to apply – if not impose – orderly solutions to the myriad of complex problems that afflict our societies, our politics and our lived everyday experiences, in largely vain attempts to make what is complex merely complicated.

We see this in legal systems that are based on uniform punishments for complex and varied crimes, in public health enterprises that treat patients as largely homogenous, and education systems and pedagogies that assume that all children develop uniformly, or ought to.

We also see the same problem in business, for a similar reason: standardisation makes things appear simple, and allows the illusion of command and control. For some reason people rarely seem to want to admit this problem in business. Perhaps business is now where we put the search for perfection? Anyhow, the idea that business (big business in particular) does not face similar problems to government, is another Black Elephant, and possibly an extremely dangerous one, given how much of government we hand over to business.

The author goes on to ask:

What can governments do to improve the way they manage complexity, and at the same time mitigate the effects of the various cognitive biases that afflict them?

We can start by accepting that complexity creates uncertainty. Prediction is not possible.The right approach is an orientation towards thinking about the future in a systematic way.

We have to be careful here, because we can use unpredictability to hide black elephants from ourselves and others. “The climate change elephant may not come, we cannot be certain about it, it might go away, we might find a technology that can chain it up, if it was a problem people would be doing something about it before us – if we act first then we will be taken advantage of… We can’t be sure, let’s just ignore it.”

Ultimately this author recommends scenario planning, but does not say why this should overcome the social bias of avoiding the elephant.

Just in case you think the idea of the Black Elephant is simple:

Black Elephants capture the postnormal dynamic of the Extended Present, and they are decidedly contextual and ought to be situated and/or articulated from more than one perspective, if only to capture the contradictions inherent to their emergence. Finally, Black Elephants indicate that PNL is present, and perhaps dominant, within a particular system.

I have no idea what PNL is either.

You may remember the famous and quite common-sensical lines from Donald Rusmfeld

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. 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 tend to be the difficult ones.

Black elephants are those knowns and probables we don’t want to know, don’t want to acknowledge, don’t want to acknowledge as important, or don’t know we know, and which will effect us. Zizek has a nice essay on this going back to the Bush Jr. Admin and the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in which the army knew what was going on, and decided to ignore the reports. [I wonder if this elephant has almost been forgotten, nowadays?]

In the past several months, the International Committee of the Red Cross regularly bombarded the Pentagon with reports about the abuses [of Iraqis by US troops] in Iraqi military prisons, and the reports were systematically ignored….

To anyone acquainted with the reality of the American way of life, the photos brought to mind the obscene underside of U.S. popular culture – say, the initiatory rituals of torture and humiliation one has to undergo to be accepted into a closed community. Similar photos appear at regular intervals in the U.S. press after some scandal explodes at an Army base or high school campus, when such rituals went overboard….

In being submitted to the humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture: They got a taste of the culture’s obscene underside that forms the necessary supplement to the public values of personal dignity, democracy and freedom. No wonder, then, the ritualistic humiliation of Iraqi prisoners was not an isolated case but part of a widespread practice….

What [Rumsfeld] forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns,” the things we don’t know that we know – which is precisely, the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself,” as Lacan used to say.

If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the “unknown unknowns,” that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect, then the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the main dangers lie in the “unknown knowns” – the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.

What we get when we see the photos of humiliated Iraqi prisoners is precisely a direct insight into “American values,” into the core of an obscene enjoyment that sustains the American way of life.

What Rumsfeld Doesn’t Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib

In this context, we might also think of this comment:

Republican Rep. Trey Hollingsworth asserted that, while he appreciated the science behind the [corona]virus’ spread, “it is always the American government’s position to say, in the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans and the loss of life, of American lives, we have to always choose the latter.”

“It is policymakers’ decision to put on our big boy and big girl pants and say it is the lesser of these two evils. It is not zero evil, but it is the lesser of these two evils and we intend to move forward that direction. That is our responsibility and to abdicate that is to insult the Americans that voted us into office.”

CNN 15 April: GOP congressman says letting more Americans die of coronavirus is lesser of two evils

In other words, he is making a rare acknowledgement that the American way of life, both requires and demands the early death of Americans.

Sartre had a point about this kind of unconsciousness, that we have to know what it is we don’t want to know, in order to ignore it – so we are writing of actively unknown knowns. Or things that are made ignorable matters of chaos when they are actually part of the order of everyday life and acknowledging them would somehow undermine that life, or its (moral) validity.

This is not ignorance but effort. The more upsetting the black elephant the more effort is put into ignoring it, and the less we will be prepared.

Perhaps all cognitive and social life requires us to create a social unconscious, which includes Black Elephants. Things that everyone knows are likely to become a problem, or generate problems, but which they believe would cause them problems were they to mention it. And besides the future is uncertain, perhaps the elephant will wander off, or prove to be a mouse in disguise. “Why should I upset my life for this? Nobody will thank me, and they might even hurt me.”

The other problem is that people tend to think that if it really was a problem then other people (especially people they respect) would be dealing with it. The fact that no one worthwhile is dealing with it, shows it is not a problem. And if everyone worthwhile thinks it is not a problem, then it probably isn’t – it’s certainly not my business. Again this formulation adds to the “Why should I upset my life by screaming about Black Elephants? Couldn’t I be deluded? And it looks tame now. Its not yet trampled anything important underfoot. Other people are not going to thank me, for going on about it”.

This is how a social unconscious is constructed, and it can become personal. Because if something is not acknowledged by people a person respects and desires to emulate, then they to have to suppress awareness of it, to emulate the admired ones. If you are lucky, you may never have your attention drawn to the black elephant, before it kills you. So you can relax – up until that moment.