Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Unknown Knowns

Former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, has a new book out called Known and Unknown: An Interventionist, Neocon Manifesto. Rumsfeld is well known for his creative juxtaposition of the two words, known and unknown, as in this famous quotation:

"There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we don't know we don't know."

So far so good, even insightful. But certainly a person as sharp as Rumsfeld knows that there is one more combination of the two words, namely unknown knowns. Several writers have suggested that unknown knowns are things we don't know that we know. That is an interesting interpretation.

But I think in Rumsfeld's case, a better interpretation of unknown knowns would be things we think we know but actually don't. Things like the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This is actually the charitable interpretation. An even more troubling view would be things we pretend to know even when we know we don't know. That may well have been true regarding WMDs in Iraq.

Either way there is a hole in Rumsfeld's analysis. The fourth combination of the two words yields the most profound insight into the Iraq years. Whether we just thought we knew something we didn't really know or pretended to know what we knew wasn't true, a war is a terrible price to pay for such misuse of knowledge. For the good of us all, Rumsfeld should have known better.