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. Donald Rumsfeld 1932-2021
Greeted at the time by bemused news corps as gobbledygook, and later roundly ridiculed by commentators and their listeners alike, these remarks from Donald Rumsfeld’s press briefing (February 12, 2002), have defied critics with their unexpected longevity.
The words remain in circulation and have been applied to contexts from climate change and the global pandemic to Scottish Independence. Now, with the passing of America’s twice-former Secretary of State, his most (in)famous utterance is recalled.
At the time, it was impossible to disentangle the remark from the politics. But as much political biography is readily available elsewhere I won’t delve into that in any detail here. Suffice to say that the Secretary of State for War, as he became satirically known, was musing about the unfathomable outcomes of the US war in Iraq, of which he was one of the main architects. Like a latter-day Helmuth von Moltke (1800–91), famous for proposing that no plan of military action survives the first encounter with the enemy, Rumsfeld appeared to be justifying deep ignorance about the effects of his own policy, invoking the notion of a fog of war in a somewhat rambling and incoherent fashion.
To his apparently amused critics, many of whom persist in their mockery even in recent obituary columns, the motivation perhaps lies in their antipathy to the man and his politics. A controversial war predicated on poor intelligence was the backdrop against which opponents were reluctant to give the Secretary of State the time of day, let alone seek pearls of wisdom in his verbosity. It’s a curious deaf-ear phenomenon reminiscent to me of the storm created by the footballer Eric Cantona when he likened the rapacious press, in one of his own antagonistic press conferences, to seagulls following a trawler – an obvious enough metaphor that was reported as though it was an impenetrable philosophical riddle. Clearly, many of the assembled journalists simply didn’t want to understand the troubled Eric or figured that their readers craved a more derisive tone.
Yet to the risk community, the tribe I belong to, there was always something alluring and generic about Rumsfeld’s truism. It became detached from the war in Iraq and from the political judgements of the man many of us disdain. Rather, it has come to be been seen as a generalisation about the sort of risks surrounding complex real-world issues.
In this new light, the risk tribe rapidly grew fond of this infamous truism on the extent of human knowledge. Rumsfeld’s aphorism is regularly quoted at risk conferences and in risk journals. I myself am no stranger to regurgitating the phrase unknown unkowns. Similarly, I met up with an old colleague recently who worked as a corporate risk analyst for many years, latterly for Toyota. He too recalled the statement as undoubtably valid and simply misunderstood, deliberately or otherwise, by the scoffers.
Hunting black swans
It is particularly the tautologous sounding unknown unkowns that we risk analysts recognise as a huge challenge in our mission. One of the methods used to try to navigate the mysterious terrain of future uncertainty is scenario planning. This is a topic I’ve previously posted on Sceptical Scot (Bringing the future into the present: the Covid food crisis). When building scenarios, known knowns are treated as predetermined elements. I like to invoke Benjamin Franklin’s quip about ‘death and taxes’ as good examples of things we are pretty certain will remain with us to shape the future. Then there are known unknowns that scenario planners refer to as critical uncertainties. The F word in Braveheart’s great rallying cry, or freedom for Scotland from English rule, is something that we know, with some confidence, will remain a driving force in British politics having been around as long as it has, but one unknown element is whether or not Independence will happen any time soon. Global pandemics are also in the category of known unknowns.
But it is the more elusive unknown unknowns that are difficult to fathom. Scenario planners often struggle to imagine such paradigm changing events. When asked to think outside the box, they can resort to improbable tropes from science fiction. Alien invasions are frequently proposed by scenario participants struggling to grapple with unknown unkowns.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines such expectation-confounding eventualities as Black Swans. These metaphorical creatures appear with little warning to disrupt current systems and overturn conventions. Horizon scanning is probably the best foresight tool we have to help us chart these treacherous waters. Horizon Scanners are tasked with looking for early signs of potentially important shifts, things at the margins of current thinking. They identify novel forms of risk and systematically monitor emergent trends.
With characteristic contrarianism, Rumsfeld embraced his detractors entitling his memoirs Known and Unknown. Without wishing to erase his deeply flawed foreign policy record, I wonder whether ultimately, his three, throwaway lines on knowledge and ignorance will be his legacy and this quotable contribution to risk analysis will be his epitaph. Then again, what do I know!
Further reading: Taleb, N. N. (2007). The black swan : the impact of the highly improbable. London, Allen Lane.