Rumsfeld's "unknown unknowns" comment

I was just reading an article about the “Foot In Mouth” award which reminded me that Rumsfeld “won” the award for this:

Am I the only one who thinks that’s a pretty insightful and intelligent comment? Why has he received so much ridicule for it?

Well, i’m not sure i’d call it insightful… it seems like common sense to me. But yeah, I can see why people might consider it unwieldy, but it makes perfect sense.

He could have also said “I don’t know” or “We aren’t aware of ___”.

Doesn’t the smart man know that there are things he does not know?

But if you are aware there are unknown unknowns, does that make them known unknown unknowns?

What really frightens me are the unknown unknown unknowns.

You’re making my head hurt. What I think it means is the realization that you may be unaware of something. So, you are aware you may not have the whole picture, but you don’t know what could be missing.

Ahh yes, the masterpiece of the great Zen poet, Donald Rumsfeld.

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.

Has he been ridiculed for it?

I sincerely dislike the man, but, “known unknowns and unknown unknowns,” is virtually a favorite quote of mine. I agree that it is a very succint manner of defining the uncertainty of many things and encouraging people to think creatively.

If only it could have been applied more fully to our conduct in Iraq…

Because it’s neither insightful nor intelligent. It happens to be true, but it’s a rather obvious and mundane truth. The reason he’s ridiculed for it is that it was a rather transparent ploy to avoid saying anything of substance.

The quote is played during a break in an acoustic version of punk band No Use for a Name’s “Fields of Agony”; a song criticizing war and politicians. It seems apropos in that context.

Because he was generally obfuscatory, and the press is usually not impressed by the “blind pig” syndrome. Plus, it just sounded like his normal B.S.

Yeah, it sounds weasely, but it’s actually one of the most honest assessments that ever graced his lips

And I might add to my earlier comment … Rumsfeld was asked a simple question having to do with facts and their implication for U.S. policy. He took it as an opportunity to pretend that the real issue was a question of epistemology. It’s evasive, but it also shows a fundamental contempt for the press and the public. A shameless contempt. Perhaps Rumsfeld’s shamelessness is what strikes viewers as so remarkable in that clip.

I am sympathetic to the OP’s view. He took a lot of shit for that quote, which at least has the virtue of being true. It is odd that we would get such an extended lecture on epistemology from a man who believes that “we know where they are” means “we believe with scant evidence that they exist.”

Do I understand then that you believe that Rumsfeld was being disingenuous or hypocritical? Or at least displaying an ironic lack of self-awareness?

If so, then wouldn’t all that shit he took be justified? Unless I’m mistaken, the OP seems to believe that the shit that Rumsfeld got for that comment was unjustified?

Exactly, Rumsfeld was a pompous ass who thought himself clever and seemed to believe that his little witicisms would befuddle the press. In the end his arrogance was his downfall. Good riddance. The only way I’d like to hear of him again, is in a court of law charged w/ his complicity in war crimes, of which he is undoubtedly guilty.

I’m not sure unjustified is the right word, but it is an odd target for ridicule. People pointed to it because they thought it was obfuscation. I don’t think it’s obfuscation, except to the extent that it is a general truism in response to a specific question. That pales in comparison to most of his obfuscation, and is the sort of ordinary political obfuscation we’ve come to expect for all politicians. So the selection of this one quote is…weird.

I think the more salient point is the irony of the epistemology lecture from someone who doesn’t even grasp the basics of what the word “know” means.

As you know, you go to the press conference with the statement you have, not the statement you want or might wish to have at a later time.

Those were unknown knowns: things we thought we knew but were wrong about.

Check out this NPR story about the poetry of Donald Rumsfeld set to music as art song. Part way down the left side is a link to hear “The Unknown” (The soprano is the daughter of a friend of mine, by the way.)