Over the weekend, I saw the well known clip of Donald Rumsfeld saying, “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. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” I’ve always dismissed the quote because it is such an ostentatious way of saying the obvious, “There are things we don’t know.” But as I listened to it this time, I was struck by the fact that the statement is incoherent. It contradicts itself.
If there are things that we don’t know that we don’t know, that must mean that some of the “known knowns” are, in fact, unknown unknowns. There isn’t anywhere else they can come from. There can’t be a category of “unknowns we take no opinion on.” The collection of facts must be divided into the knowns and the unknowns. We can divide the knowns into those things we know we know and those we things we don’t think we know. But the same can’t be done with the unknowns. An unknown is either unknown or mistakenly thought to be known.
I think that is what makes Rumsfeld’s quote so weaselly. He doesn’t want to come right out and say that there are things we think we know but which ain’t so. What would be a good example of that? Oh, I know: thinking that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Although, as everyone should know by now, that was just the pretense for war, not the reason. But still, I don’t doubt that they did think Iraq had WMDs. It’s like the old joke, “We know Saddam Hussein had WMDs; we still have the receipts.”
But if you wanted to, I guess you could stretch and trying to make an argument in favor of Rumsfeld. It would have to be that there are facts out in the world that we are just unaware of. That would be that they are unknown not in the sense that we don’t know the truth but rather in that we don’t even know that the facts exist. The problem with this is in doing so, Rumsfeld would have created two kinds of unknowns. Because clearly you couldn’t have these kinds of unknowns known — they would instead be “known unknowns.” For example, the first kind of unknown might be WMDs: we didn’t know if Iraq had them at that time. The second kind of unknown might be Al-Qaeda in Iraq: the administration didn’t (seemingly) even consider the possibility of the rise of such groups.
Regardless of how you look at it, Rumsfeld’s idea of “unknown unknowns” was always meant to obfuscate. I remember Rumsfeld going around quoting Laozi, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” The implication was, “Because I won’t tell you anything, you should trust me.” And just look at him in the video above: he’s so self-impressed. It reminds me of something I read from Matt Bruenig a while back. He was talking about libertarians and how almost all of them seem to think that they are the smartest people in any room. That sums up Rumsfeld. What he “knows” that isn’t actually true is that he’s very smart. He’s just smart enough to be really dangerous.