December 30, 2003


John Weldon is a Melbourne writer. That is a known known. But there are many things John doesn’t know:

I heard a speech by a man that made me realise that my quest to discover how humankind - being so unsuited to the rigours of this world - had managed to survive and prosper, was pointless and irrelevant. That man was US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and what he said was this, in relation to his country's failing search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: "There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things we know we don't know. But, there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we don't know we don't know."

When exposed to a mind like Mr Rumsfeld's the question of how we survived loses all import. In its stead looms the much more important and ultimately more troubling question of why.

John doesn’t know that the question asked of Rumsfeld was not about any search for WMD, but about evidence of any WMD sales by Iraq to terrorist organisations. I don’t know why Weldon doesn’t know how to conduct elementary research, and I don’t know why The Age doesn’t know how to find any people who do.

Another thing: Rumseld’s excellent formulation won him the the Plain English Campaign’s 2003 Foot in Mouth Award. But how come Rumsfeld won for a line from February 2002? Under the rules of plain English, wouldn’t such an award by definition be presented for something said in 2003? The same organisation’s 2002 award, for example, went to Richard Gere, for a comment made after Rumsfeld’s. Plain confusing.

Posted by Tim Blair at December 30, 2003 01:20 AM

Why do people act as if Rumsfeld was speaking total gibberish? His explanation makes perfect sense to me. And not only does he make sense, he's also correct. He's diagrammaed the scientific approach to a problem (any problem): identify what you know, identify what you don't know, and recognize that inbetween could lie many things you don't know you don't know.

It's perfectly logical and rational.

Oh, that must be the problem. Maybe Rumsfeld should have substituted "fictition" for "unknown."

Posted by: R.W. at December 30, 2003 at 02:19 AM

RW, like you, I'm amused at the people who try to say that Rumsfield is muddled. The Known-knowns, the known-unknowns and the unknown-unknown hierachy is commonly used in DOD contracting to determine the risk of a new program. I suspect that something very like it is used in industry research also. Seems that the only people who are having trouble with the concept are those who don't have to produce anything to any kind of standard - like reporters.

Posted by: rabidfox at December 30, 2003 at 02:46 AM

Perhaps he could explain the difference between explaining ``how we survived'' and ``why we survived.''

A nomination for the 2004 Plain English award perhaps?

Posted by: chip at December 30, 2003 at 02:52 AM

Mayve his straight-talking isn't "sophisticated" enough for the "elite"

Posted by: madne0 at December 30, 2003 at 02:53 AM

Same here. Makes perfect sense to me. Jonah Goldberg did an analysis of this quote on NRO that was just brilliant.

My favorite Rumsfeld quote was back during the Afghan campaign when some prissy little English "journalist" asked a hostile question demanding to know why the US was using cluster bomb munitions in that war.

Rumsfled replied: We are using cluster bomb munitions to kill the enemy. Next question?

Posted by: KevinV at December 30, 2003 at 03:58 AM

Personally, I tune out as soon as someone starts to discuss how OR why humankind as managed to prosper.

There are a dozen conflicting answers for this -- humankind survived because of brain power and intelligence, because of adaptability, because of preeminence as a tool-user, and so on. A columnist who is unable to think of ANY of these things -- and is unwilling to do the research to uncover any of them -- isn't worth my time or attention. (I especially don't need an angst-driven article on "oh, but does anything have meaning anymore".)

On the other hand, he probably doesn't believe that part of what he's saying anyway. he just wanted a hook to hang the "Rumsfeld is unintelligible" on.

Personally, I think it makes sense -- things you know that you know ("it's a sunny day and the sky is blue"), things that you know you don't know ("I don't know if it will rain tomorrow"), and things you don't know that you don't know (actually, the weather is about to change and soak me with a downpour, but I don't know that, and I'm unaware of my ignorance).

Rumsfeld's point, I believe, was that intelligent people (and organizations) strive to move things from the third category to the second, and from the second to the first. Things you don't know that you don't know can be dangerous; better to be AWARE of what you don't know, because then you can try to learn more about it. In the context of Rumsfeld's speech, this makes perfect sense.

There's also the one remaining category -- things you don't know that you DO know, and even this makes sense. (For example, what was the weather like on some specific date in 1997? I can't imagine. But it might turn out that I *DO* know -- that I went to a ball game that day, and got caught in a snowstorm -- but it took me a while to dig up that memory, and to associate it with the specific date. In Rumsfeld's circles, this would be the case, for example, for facts and intelligence reports that the United States posesses, but doesn't know it posesses, because they're buried under a mountain of papers at the Pentagon somewhere.)

It's a fallacy to say that something doesn't make sense if it isn't instantly transparent to everybody. (I'm even willing to say that nearly everything of importance in my life, from the computer programming I do for a living to the a cappella singing I do as a hobby, required years of careful study.) Not everyone is interested in a free ride, Mr. Weldon!!

Daniel in Medford

Posted by: Daniel in Medford at December 30, 2003 at 04:34 AM

Fuck all your right wing nazi parroting. See youn assholes on the streets.

Posted by: Andre Casanave at December 30, 2003 at 05:12 AM

Fuck all your right wing nazi parroting. See you assholes on the streets.

Posted by: Andre Casanave at December 30, 2003 at 05:12 AM

Its worth noting that even the UK's Grauniad had an article complaining about Rumsfeld's award.

I have to say that John Weldon (on the other hand) looks like a shooin for the "Phil Space" award for mindless drivel.

Posted by: Francis at December 30, 2003 at 05:15 AM

See youn assholes on the streets.

Andre, we can assume you're a poorly educated product of state schools, but engendered idiocy is not excuse for a lack of clarity.

Do you mean "See you assholes on the streets"? Probably not, because all good lefties know RWDBs ride around limos or walk on the backs of the poor, especially when going to lunch, which we do a lot.

Therefore, two alternative meanings remain.

"See your assholes on the streets." Whatever turns you on, Andre, but being conservatives, most of us keep our bottoms covered, much as this may prompt priapic wilting in the Casa Nave.

and, finally, what I suspect you really mean:

"See young assholes on the streets."

That's more like it -- but be warned, introducing foreign obvjects into the typical rears of little lefty lads is apt to cause brain damage. Not that most would notice.

Posted by: superboot at December 30, 2003 at 05:24 AM

Surely some of these leftist tunnelvisionaries grasp that Rumsfeld’s didacticism had a sarcastic edge. Well, whether from cynicism or stupidity, they don’t match his repartee but instead respond with derisive obfuscation.

Posted by: ForNow at December 30, 2003 at 05:54 AM

“I’m Howard Dean, and I’m here once again to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

Howard Dean speaking at the Children's Defense Fund Presidential Candidate's Forum on Children, Wednesday, April 9, 2003.

Well, _I_ was “truly baffled”. :)

Posted by: Ranita at December 30, 2003 at 06:58 AM

When I heard Rumsfeld's quote the first time, I honestly thought he should be given a real award for plain English. His formulation was not only clear, it was directly on point.

It went straight to the heart of the issue which has led to so much shoddy journalism thoughout the war and its lead up. We didn't know the state of Hussein's WMD programs. We didn't know whether he had sold any to terrorists. But we KNEW that we DIDN'T KNOW; that is to say, we knew from his obfuscations that he was lying about these issues and we knew that with his pre-war levels of cooperation there was no way we could ascertain how much he was lying.

That, I think, is what Rumsfeld was conveying to anyone who was actually listening to him.

Ps - Andre, I think I have seen you on the streets. Were you the filthy bum who approached me for change in Lygon Street this morning as I walked to work to help pay for your dole check?

Posted by: Alan Anderson at December 30, 2003 at 08:12 AM

I too was very impressed with Rumsfeld's terse and cogent explanation of basic logic.
It reminded me of my math teacher Mr. Finlay teaching us about modus ponens and modus tollens (If P Then Q) back in middle school (ages 11-13).

Andre reminds me of the greasy haired stoned kid at the back of the room who reeked of marijuana smoke and woke up with drool on his cheek and desk top when the bell rang.

Posted by: JDB at December 30, 2003 at 09:01 AM

It is KNOWN that you were approached by a filthy bum in Lygon Street,
Whether or no he was Andre is a KNOWN UNKOWN
That he ended up that way cause Daddy didn't buy him the full set of TMNT dolls for Xmas 1985 is an UNKNOWN UNKNOWN.

Who knew ?

Posted by: Robert Blair at December 30, 2003 at 09:05 AM

Daniel in Medford, I'm glad I'm not the only person who noticed he left out the 'unknown knowns'. That was the only thing that kept that quote from being perfect (and even more unintelligble to those incapable of using logic).

Posted by: Kathy K at December 30, 2003 at 09:23 AM

The Rumsfeld quote made sense to me immediately. I'm pretty certain that I'd been exposed to it previously in a class on Aristotle, and again in a seminar on organizing and leading software projects -- where it was accompanied by its corollary about facts or resources that you already possess but are unaware of. I'm also pretty sure that some stock market and investment gurus have used the same approach. Leftists truly live in a sheltered and isolated world. They're so isolated that a distinct phenomenon has developed where they repeat accusations that have been discredited, such as the canard about George W. Bush and the "plastic turkey". The sarcastic award to Rumsfeld in a sense belongs to this category.

Posted by: CJ at December 30, 2003 at 10:30 AM

Has anyone noticed the clown who complained about parroting posted his drivel twice in a row?

Fuck all your right wing nazi parroting. BAAWWWK! tweet-tweet! Fuck all your right wing nazi parroting. BAAWWWK! tweet-tweet!

Does Andre want a heavily-subsidized, organically-grown cracker?

Andre wants anarchy and social justice. BAAWWWK! tweet-tweet! And a cuttlebone.

Posted by: Angie Schultz at December 30, 2003 at 10:30 AM

I thought this was Rumsfeld but it turned out, apon googlong, to be Myers. Still, it was a great press conference moment

The subject of using a Daisy Cutter on Tora Bora came up (or as Slate amusingly refers to it, “Dropping Miss Daisy”), how they are rarely used, and only at specific targets. It seems in this case they were after a specific cave. Asked about the exact target and the results, General Myers would only say, “we’ve had forces view the scene and it had the desired result.” [smelling blood, looking for specifics] General, what exactly were the desired results? “To kill Al Qaeda” Well, if you’ve had troops there, have they been in the caves, how do you know you got the desired results, what did they see? “Dead Al Qaeda.”

Posted by: Amos at December 30, 2003 at 12:43 PM

Boy are you guys missing the point. For leftists, there are neither known unknowns or unknown unknowns. For crying out loud, THEY KNOW IT ALL! If it isn't something they know, then it is of no importance. For them there are only knowns. Haven't you ever tried to discuss anything of importance with a dedicated Marxist? (Or, gods forbid, a Marxist-humanist?)

Posted by: JorgXMcKie at December 30, 2003 at 02:44 PM

Perhaps if Rumsfeld had said the following:

"The patriarchical phallogocentrism implicit in "known" and "unknown," which very terms attempt to impose an illusory pre-Foucauldian distinction between erotic "(k)no(w)ing" and the "knowing/no-ing" of the intellect--the "no"etic and "no"umenal space--collapses in its own failure to comprehend the "differance" which is implied in the trace of the absence of WMD's, the "pharmakon" of Saddam Hussein, which both cures and kills as the Greek word suggests, "killing" in its expression of the Western fear of the Ba'athist "other," yet curing in rallying the hegemonic fantasies of the President, here less a "Bush" than a phoenix in the burning bush seeking to arise where his father burned in flames, a simultaneously self-erasing and self-creating text, as signified by the initial "H" absent in his name -- an Oedipal overthrow of the father that cannot extinguish the longing for his approval. That, my dear ladies, gentlemen, and honored transgendereds, is why we fight."

Posted by: R.W. at December 30, 2003 at 04:48 PM

R.W., if Dean wins the election - Ha, ha, ha; that was a good one... as I was saying, if Dean wins the election, you should certainly apply for the position of SecDef.

Posted by: Alan Anderson at December 30, 2003 at 04:57 PM

JDB - you didn't study at Linden Park Primary by any chance?

Posted by: Alan Anderson at December 30, 2003 at 04:58 PM

Secretary Rumsfeld's words were simply drawn from an old saying:

He who knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep: wake him.

He who knows, and knows that he knows, is wise: follow him.

He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is a child: teach him.

He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool: shun him.

That has been around for at least 30 years. If the words confuse anyone, that person must be willing his stupidity.

Posted by: RJGatorEsq at December 30, 2003 at 10:28 PM

Googling around, I find that it said that that saying (“He who knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep,” etc.) is an old Persian apothegm. To attack Rumsfeld for his turn upon it is anti-Iranian racism plain & simple.

Posted by: ForNow at December 31, 2003 at 03:08 AM

Socialistic elites ridicule this logic because it is beyond their comprehension that government doesn't know everything. Thus, all mistakes and misanalyses are "lies", all incomplete statements are "coverups" and all failed programs are caused by "insufficient funding". Thus, Rumsfeld's statement about what is and isn't known to government is a clear attempt to obfuscate.

Posted by: rvman at January 1, 2004 at 03:42 AM