Donald Rumsfeld, and the infamous “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns” quotation

Yes, there are three kinds of knowledge. Is there a good way to explain the concept? How do you convince a roomful of White House journalists they need to look it up?

I was reading a magazine article by Richard Lederer, the well-known author of books and articles on the English language. That has always been a favorite topic of mine, so I usually make a point to read his writings when they come my way.

On this particular occasion, he was relating various unintentionally humorous double-entendres, such as the headline, “Grandmother of Eight Makes Hole in One.” Or, his favorite, written by one of his students: “Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper.”

I enjoyed the article, except for one part, which merely puzzled me. Lederer quoted outgoing Department of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from a 2002 press conference. After several re-readings, and finding no humor or mistake in the quote, I wrote to Mr. Lederer, expressing my opinion on the point. This was my first exposure to this news. I did not realize then that the quote had been national news for a few days, a continuing point of contention, the subject of books, nor that Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker had written of a meeting with Mr. Rumsfeld a few weeks prior to the press conference:

Rumsfeld gave me a copy of some aphorisms he had collected during the process of assessing the ballistic-missile threat… One was “There are knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns…”

“I think this construct is just powerful,” Rumsfeld said. “The unknown unknowns, we do not even know we don’t know them.”

What Donald Rumsfeld said (video) in his “Foot-in-Mouth” award-winning quote was:

“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 [beyond mine].”

I’ve found that the beginning of the quote, up to the first comma, is rarely reported, and I’ve never seen last sentence reported. This is unfortunate, since they underscore the topic of the remainder of the quote. Reporter Jim Miklaszewski had just referred to stories coming out of Iraq “that there is no evidence of a direct link between Baghdad and some of these terrorist organizations.” Rumsfeld replied, if I may translate, that one cannot prove a negative (just as Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong cannot prove they never used performance-enhancing drugs). Similarly, reports that fail to find the links they seek don’t prove the links don’t exist, they can only speculate about the links that were suspected at the time. Also, those reports cannot take into account all possibilities, e.g., facts or plans so secret that the allied forces didn’t even know of their existence, so relying on those reports as an “all clear” is clearly a dangerous mistake. Greater diligence is necessary before putting our troops at greater risk.

What Lederer, Goldberg, the Department of Defense press corps (who are heard laughing near the end of the video), and many critics do not realize is that an “unknown unknown” is a legitimate, indispensable concept in decision analysis, and something you want your Defense Secretary to know very well. It’s a good thing for everyone in a tolerant, enlightened culture to know. I came to the concept relatively late in life, but it is an important one for me.

Today I read an article criticizing Rumsfeld for saying (among other things): “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” It seems that this wasn’t considered “irascible,” or “patronizing,” when astronomers Carl Sagan or Sir Martin Rees, or physicists John Archibald Wheeler or Albert Einstein first said it (depending on which source you believe).

To summarize this introduction, I must admit that, while I believe Mr. Rumsfeld was not the right person for his job, and that I have significant disagreements with most of his ideology… I think that he is a very intelligent, well-read man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Calvin Trillin complains in his book A Heckuva Job: More of the Bush Administration in Rhyme that Rumsfeld conducted press briefings “as if trying patiently to explain the obvious to a class of slow third-graders.” Considering the debacle the press manufactured from Rumsfeld’s earnest attempt to explain the limits of our strategic knowledge (or “intel,” if you prefer), I’d say Trillin was correct with his facts, but not his conclusions. Paradoxically, this is a pitfall of assuming you’re aware of everything that is knowable.

So, Mr. Rumsfeld, while I’m glad your former boss finally has gotten a wake-up call about his administration’s mishandling of the war, and I’m glad you won’t be here to help him further his unconstitutional plutocracy, or to tell us to “back off” instead of speaking our minds about him, I must admit I believe the media played an inappropriately direct role in your downfall, and in part for personal reasons. And I believe their misuse of trust and power is just as inappropriate as yours or President Bush’s.

Confused as to where I stand on the issues? Good. It’s not supposed to be simple. Anyway, I originally started this blog entry only to share my letter to Richard Lederer (remember him?). In doing a bit of background research as I wrote, I discovered quite a few facts that were previously “unknown unknowns” to me.

Finally, at last, here is my letter to Richard Lederer.

Dear Mr. Lederer,

I enjoy your monthly articles. Unfortunately, we disagree about a statement you made this month regarding Donald Rumsfeld and his explanation of the three types of knowledge: known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. On first reading I understood him precisely, and on subsequent readings I can find no errors in the grammar or construction of his quote. Perhaps you are pointing out the nebulous nature of this esoteric point, but the point itself is quite valid, and I think he articulated it rather well.

Admittedly, his quote looks and reads like a circumlocutory, syntactic stew. Punctuation is of little help, unless perhaps we innovate something like, “…the three kinds of knowledge: known/knowns, known/unknowns, and unknown/unknowns.” A little unorthodoxy in font styles might clarify further, such as with Mr. Rumsfeld’s full quote, “There are ‘known knowns’—these are the things we know 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.” This has an unintended didactic sense about it, but if these were my words and I were writing a book, I think I’d start with this latter form and let my editor get a few grey hairs over it.

Personally, when explaining this distinction to listeners, I usually say, “There are things we know, things that we know we don’t know, and things that we don’t know we don’t know. Of the three groups, the last is the largest.” Intonation is key, [as is stressing the bold text]. Then I give examples.

For instance: I know I like to read Richard Lederer’s writing. I know I don’t know how old he is, his phone number, or where he was born. In other words, I’m aware there are answers to these questions, but I don’t know them. Finally, if his secret hobby is philately, or his diet comprises only carrots, tofu, and water, or perhaps he has a twin named Greta, these are facts I would not know, nor would I have an inkling of their existence. Put another way, I don’t even know these are questions that have specific answers. I could conceive speculative questions ad infinitum, but lacking omniscience, I will remain clueless about the gaps in my knowledge.

In Mr. Rumsfeld’s case, as he characterized the tactical situation relating to Iraq’s cache of WMDs, one could observe he knew there were arms secreted in Iraq. Further, he knew he didn’t know how many caches there were, where they were, nor the kinds of weapons they contained. Finally, if the Iraqi dictator had surreptitiously shipped WMDs to an ally for hiding, or if Saddam had an innovative, foolproof plan to hide the WMDs or use them against the allies, Mr. Rumsfeld could not know these secrets, nor would he realize he didn’t know them.

It is an odd coincidence that I send you this note, by chance, on the day Mr. Rumsfeld announced his resignation. Please be assured this is not a politically-motivated message; I merely felt the need to support the notion of the three types of knowledge, and perhaps to bemoan how difficult they are to explain.

Thanks for reading.

Steve Meuse

The opinions expressed in Steve’s Peeves are intended to entertain and uplift. They may not be appropriate for young readers or the satirically challenged. Parental supervision is advised.

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4 Comments on “Donald Rumsfeld, and the infamous “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns” quotation”

  1. Steve Says:

    (These comments were copied by me from my previous blog)

    Excellent explanation of the three kinds of knowledge.

    Did you ever receive a response from Richard Lederer?

    David Jaques-Watson | 09.06.07 – 1:51 am


    I did! He said, “You make a good point, Steve, and you may well be right.” Since he is a busy man and is no doubt paid by the word, I was pleased to hear from him at all. My “spidey sense” suspects this is a boiler-plate response, but I choose to believe he read, understood, and contemplated my email.

    Steve | 09.06.07 – 9:54 pm

  2. jeff Says:

    The human species is born within the limits of knowledge. Even a newborn baby horse colt knows enough to get up off the ground and stand upon its feet. We here can’t do that. As persons who have been conditioned by what we know, we only know that, given that is the truth. So truth is fleeting if you believe it. For you just might be there unknown, finding out that unknown is the truth.

  3. Julian Vincent Says:

    What most commentaries omit is the unknown known (looking at the 3 statements as constructed from a 2 x 2 matrix of known and unknown). This has been interpreted as Rumsfeld trying to forget about Abu Ghraib. But it is also symptomatic of a general problem with thinking – there are things that we do not consider relevant to a problem, so we dismiss them before examining them. This could also be called narrow-mindedness. The most creative people I know – in terms of finding solutions to problems – are aware of this at a subconscious level and have few unknown knowns. In other words, they have found ways of removing the barriers between the different areas of their knowledge. This can easily be done (at a first level) by always stating knowledge in terms of functions delivered. Not easy until you get the hang of it, but then a really mind-opening technique. So poor old Rumsie never actually got to the end of what he should have said – he missed out the most important bit!!

    • ballarodent Says:

      Three cheers for Julian!!! Spot on re premature certainty and dismissing what doesn’t fit the expected solution (a major problem of ‘outcomes-based’ thinking). Also your nod in the direction of Descartes and his mind-splitting headache. And an excellent underlying article from Steve. Thank you both for the thoughtful consideration of the topic.

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