Known Knowns, Unknown Unknowns…but don’t forget the unknown knowns

Here’s US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talking about the famous “unknown unknowns”, in the context of the Iraq war. But there’s one category he misses, and it is the most important of all.

“There are known knowns, the things we know we know, and known unknowns, the things we know we don’t know. And then there are the unknown unknowns, the things we don’t know we don’t know…”

But there are also the unknown knowns, the things we don’t know we know.

By now your brain may be well on its way to being fried, but an example will make it crystal clear. The reason the Iraq war turned into such a tragedy is not because of what Rumsfeld and Bush didn’t know they didn’t know, but what they didn’t know they knew. Or, to put it simply, the assumptions they “knew” but never stated, so that they never examined them. The big unknown known of the Iraq war was “once the Iraqi people have been freed from the horrible Saddam Hussein, they will joyfully embrace a Western-style liberal democracy.”

Now when you actually say this you see the improbability of it. And even a cursory familiarity with history would tell you that this isn’t what usually happens when people are freed by force from tyranny.   But the assumption was never stated, so it was allowed to pass without challenge. In the words of Pierre Bourdieu, it was one of those things which “go without saying, because they come without saying.”

Or, in the much neater formulation of Mark Twain, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”