This week I went to a conference run by Courier Media. In the opening session founder and editor-in-chief, Jeff Taylor made mention of the following quote which is frequently cited in management and marketing circles:
…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, February 12, 2002
Jeff was using this quote to illustrate a common problem – essentially that the things we don’t know we don’t know, are perhaps, the cause of some of the thorniest problems we face. In short, the things that you don’t know you don’t know about, are things that you are entirely ignorant of – you can’t possibly seek to solve a challenge that you are unaware of.
There’s the promise of a solution here though: find a way to convert those unknown unknowns (i.e. the things you don’t know you don’t know), into known unknowns (i.e. things you know you don’t know). Once you’ve realised that there’s something you don’t know about, only then can you begin to take steps to educate yourself.
This feels like sensible advice and, in many respects it aligns nicely with some of my thinking on the benefits of noticing things and paying attention to what you’re paying attention to.
But I had a nagging feeling that something was missing:
I realised this morning, that although I’ve been aware of Rumsfeld’s quote for a long time (and I’m certain I’ve used the framework of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns many times), the notion of unknown knowns had never previously occurred to me.
I also realised that I’ve never really considered the context of Rumsfeld’s quote. Why did he say that? What was that quote in reference to?
What follows is the rabbit hole I tumbled down trying to find the answers…
The origins of the ‘unknown uknowns’ quote
This often cited quote formed part of a response that United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, gave to a question at a U.S. Department of Defense news briefing on February 12, 2002. (That’s five months after 9/11 and a year before the invasion of Iraq.)
Here’s an excerpt of the transcript from that press conference (taken from a series of articles written by Errol Morris on the NY Times):
JIM MIKLASZEWSKI: In regard to Iraq weapons of mass destruction and terrorists, is there any evidence to indicate that Iraq has attempted to or is willing to supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction? Because there are reports that there is no evidence of a direct link between Baghdad and some of these terrorist organizations.
DONALD RUMSFELD: 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. 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 — what was the word you used, Pam, earlier?
PAM HESS: Free associate. [The phrase “free associate” came earlier in the press conference in response to a question about drones.]
DONALD RUMSFELD: Yeah. They can do things I can’t do. (laughter)
As journalist Errol Morris notes: “The verbal exchanges that followed provide an excursion into a world no less irrational, no less absurd, than the worlds Lewis Carroll created in Alice in Wonderland.”
The quote is a riddle, not an answer.
Miklaszewski was asking for evidence: “…is there any evidence to indicate that Iraq has attempted to or is willing to supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction?”
Miklaszewski, unsatisfied by Rumsfeld’s answer, tries again to pin him down:
JIM MIKLASZEWSKI: Excuse me. But is this an unknown unknown?
DONALD RUMSFELD: I’m not —
JIM MIKLASZEWSKI: Because you said several unknowns, and I’m just wondering if this is an unknown unknown.
DONALD RUMSFELD: I’m not going to say which it is.
Jamie McIntyre, the senior Pentagon correspondent for CNN, returned to the real question — the question of evidence:
JAMIE McINTYRE: I just want to — because you so cleverly buried Jim Miklaszewski’s question by characterizing it as something that was unknowable. But he didn’t ask you [about] something that was unknowable. He asked you if you knew of evidence that Iraq was supplying — or willing to supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorists —
DONALD RUMSFELD: He cited reports where people said that was not the case.
JAMIE McINTYRE: Right. He’s done that and —
DONALD RUMSFELD: And my response was to that, and I thought it was good response.
But McIntyre did not give up. And Rumsfeld slipped into more gobbledygook.
JAMIE McINTYRE: But if we are to believe things —
DONALD RUMSFELD: I could have said that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, or vice versa.
JAMIE McINTYRE: But we just want to know, are you aware of any evidence? Because that would increase our level of belief from faith to something that would be based on evidence.
DONALD RUMSFELD: Yeah, I am aware of a lot of evidence involving Iraq on a lot of subjects. And it is not for me to make public judgments about my assessment or others’ assessment of that evidence. I’m going to make that the last question.
Dear reader, this was not the origin story I was expecting.
Having found the origins of the quote, I then began to wonder where the idea of ‘unknown unknowns’ that Rumsfeld references came from. Was this concept really his idea? I couldn’t help but feel that it seemed unlikely that this type of thinking could have only come into being in 2002, so I dug a little further.
Possible origins of the ‘unknown unknowns’ concept
According to Wikipedia (a secondary source and therefore, potentially problematic) the earliest reference to this concept, can be traced to thirteenth-century Persian poet, Ibn Yamin, who said there are four types of men:
One who knows and knows that he knows… His horse of wisdom will reach the skies.
One who knows, but doesn’t know that he knows… He is fast asleep, so you should wake him up!
One who doesn’t know, but knows that he doesn’t know… His limping mule will eventually get him home.
One who doesn’t know and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know… He will be eternally lost in his hopeless oblivion!Ibn Yamin
I was delighted to find that Yamin makes reference to four, rather than three, types of men – here’s the missing piece of the puzzle: the elusive unknown known, or in Yamin’s words (one who knows, but doesn’t know that he knows).
Via that same Wikipedia page I learned that besides Yamin, others too have acknowledged and referenced the concept of unknown knowns.
The most poignant or these comes from psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who defines unknown knowns as: “that which we intentionally refuse to acknowledge that we know”.
In 2004, when news broke of the systematic torture and abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison by US Army and CIA personnel, Žižek wrote an essay titled “What Rumsfeld doesn’t know that he knows about Abu Ghraib”. Within this essay he highlights:
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.Slavoj Žižek, What Rumsfeld doesn’t know that he knows about Abu Ghraib
It’s an incredibly compelling argument that the unknown knowns are the most dangerous of all.
Dear reader, what started out as a somewhat frivolous research exercise has taken me somewhere utterly unexpected. This is not a happy discovery, but I think it’s a really important one.
It occurs to me that there are many unknown knowns that represent a real and present danger.
Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s words to MPs at the Houses of Parliament in April of this year resonate more strongly than ever:
You don’t listen to the science because you are only interested in solutions that will enable you to carry on like before.Greta Thunberg
Perhaps, rather than idling wondering about unknown unknowns, we might all do better to consider those unknown knowns – those blind spots, those things we know, but choose not to acknowledge.