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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Essay: Known knowns and unknown unknowns

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Known knowns and unknown unknowns

From the book: Chum for Thought: Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters by David Satterlee

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Donald #Rumsfeld on Known knowns and unknown unknowns
Chum For Thought:
Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters

Known knowns and unknown unknowns


In 2002, the press took exception to a comment by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. However, I think he was onto something important…
“…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.”
Donald Rumsfeld – Defense Department briefing, February 12, 2002  (Federal par. 160)
This quotation has been rendered in several minor variations. They all fall short by one of exhausting the matrix of known and knowable. But, that is not critical to the point that he was making. The version (below) that I transcribed from a video of his briefing includes the sound of an audience starting to laugh. The reporters may have been anticipating questioning him sharply about unknown knowns:

“… there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns; there are things we do not know we don’t know.”           
ibid (transcribed by Satterlee—italics added)
Secretary Rumsfeld was nearing the end of a protracted and confrontational news conference at the time that he made this statement. Reporters had repeatedly parsed his words and perversely tried to turn them against him. He had just defended a ludicrous challenge to the Pentagon’s attentiveness to Iraq. A questioner asserts that, “…there is no evidence of a direct link between Baghdad and some of these terrorist organizations.”

Rumsfeld, evidently getting testy, introduces
his quote of interest with, “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know…”  and followed it with, “And so people who have the omniscience that they can say with high certainty that something has not happened or is not being tried, have capabilities that are … they can do things I can’t do” (Federal par. 159-163).

The “knowing” quotation of Rumsfeld, at first hearing, sounds like he was rambling aloud while he desperately tried to find his way out of confusion. The British Plain English Campaign seemed to hold this opinion when they gave him a “Foot in Mouth” award for his statement. “A spokesman for the organisation, which tries to ensure public information is delivered in a clear manner, said Mr. Rumsfeld's remarks were typical of the kind of comments they were trying to prevent" (BBC News par. 4, 5).
Another commentator, probably having fun, classified it as just another example of Rumsfeld’s poetry. He observed that:

Until now, the secretary's poetry has found only a small and skeptical audience: the Pentagon press corps. Every day, Rumsfeld regales reporters with his jazzy, impromptu riffs. Few of them seem to appreciate it.

But we should all be listening. Rumsfeld's poetry is paradoxical: It uses playful language to address the most somber subjects: war, terrorism, mortality. Much of it is about indirection and evasion: He never faces his subjects head on but weaves away, letting inversions and repetitions confuse and beguile. His work, with its dedication to the fractured rhythms of the plainspoken vernacular, is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams (Seely).

Instead, I suspect that Secretary Rumsfeld was giving a short treatise on the “fog of war.” Military commanders must frequently make substantive decisions with poor, and sometimes conflicting, information. They are responsible for putting soldiers in harm’s way and constantly grapple with the necessity of making critical decisions in an environment of high ambiguity. They become accustomed to rigorously evaluating what they know and do not know, what is knowable and not. For Rumsfeld, this was not confused babbling, but may have been the very heart of one of his most personally troubling issues.

The phrase “unknown unknowns” was not temporized by Rumsfeld on the moment, but is used within the military. In 1984, an Air Force officer wrote about war and war games:
To those things Clausewitz wrote about uncertainty and chance, I would add a few comments on unknown unknowns--those things that a commander doesn't even know he doesn't know. Participants in a war game would describe an unknown unknown as unfair, beyond the ground rules of the game. But real war does not follow ground rules, and I would urge that games be "unfair" by introducing unknown unknowns (Furlong par. 11).
When I was a youth, I thought I knew everything. Now that I am older, I am pleased to admit the realization that the world is rich with things I do not know that I do not know.