June 09, 2002
Parsing Rumsfeld

Tim Blair quotes (via the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) some puzzling words from Don Rumsfeld:

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.

He attempts to explain them with a brake-lining analogy. Maybe I'm explaining the obvious -- it's an occupational hazard of high school teaching --, but simpler and more pertinent examples are possible:

  • Knowns: 'Bin Laden and Mullah Omar are not in U.S. custody.'
  • Known unknowns: 'Are Bin Laden and Mullah Omar dead or alive? If alive, where are they living and are they wounded? How might we go about killing or capturing them with the least collateral damage?' These are well-defined questions to which we do not happen to have answers, though we would very much like to have them. Various steps can be (and presumably are being) taken to try to answer them.
  • Unknown unknowns: These are the answers to questions we don't even know enough to ask. Or if we do ask them, the questions are so vague that the answers can't be usefully searched for. Example: 'What horrors are being planned by what groups when and where?' If we knew the answer(s) to that question, we could do something useful with the related practical questions: 'How do we prevent this, that, and the other terrorist(s) from accomplishing this, that, and the other horror(s)?'

I still prefer the SecDef's less academic prose. This makes him sound like Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas or one of their epigones. (I seldom get a chance to say 'epigone'.) Or perhaps like Socrates, who famously knew what he did not know.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at June 09, 2002 11:37 PM