February 21, 2010

Unknown Unknowns: The Found Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld


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, 2003

To many, this seemed silly at the time it was first recited by the author. But of late it seems to be more and more prescient and prophetic with every passing day.

[Thanks for the memory to William M. Briggs, Statistician サ Rumsfeld and Keynes on Probability]

Posted by Vanderleun at February 21, 2010 11:44 AM
Bookmark and Share



"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

At the time Sec. Rumsfeld said that I thought it was the most correct statement of knowledge I had ever read. I also thought it was one of the least hubristic thing any person in power had ever publicly said.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at February 21, 2010 1:45 PM

Epistemology 101 from the former Sec. of Defense. (See what you learn from hanging around One Cosmos!)


Posted by: jwm at February 21, 2010 1:58 PM

What Mikey said.

Posted by: Eric Blair at February 21, 2010 4:16 PM

I love it.

It reminds me of my science teacher back in the dark ages, when he told the class that one thing we know FOR SURE, is that we could never keep a person alive long enough to reach the moon, nor have a gas tank big enough to power a plane to get us there. Is that a known or an unknown.

This was back in the day before jet travel, when jets were so rare that a contrail in the sky would send everyone outdoors to point up in wonder.

His known was true, a 4 engine prop plane can not carry enough fuel to get to the moon, nor enough speed to leave earth orbit, nor be pressurized in such a way to keep a person alive. His unknowns FOR SURE, were infinite. His scientific philosophy as best I remember it from class was that man could perhaps master earthly things, but space was the realm of God.

BTW, when we returned to school the following Fall just a few months later, one of our first assignments was to write about Scott Crossfield and the X-15 rocket plane. Unbeknown to me, my Mother saved most of my school papers. I found them in one of her files after she died and some went back to 5th grade all the way through college. I laughed when I saw that I got an A for content and an A++ for penmanship on the Crossfield paper. My Mother wrote a note in the margin: "Needs help on punctuation after clauses. Must work on that."

Posted by: Sara (Pal2Pal) at February 21, 2010 4:18 PM

Intellectually incurious talking heads snickered at the time, but our own beloved Rummie's words resonated then and now.


Posted by: Sissy Willis at February 22, 2010 6:17 AM

Reminds me of the poem Gene Wilder (as Wonka) recited in the psychodelic boat ride:

There's no earthly way of knowing,
Which direction we are going.

There's no knowing where we're rowing,
Or which way the river's flowing.

Is it raining, is it snowing?
Is a hurricane a blowing?

Not a speck of light is showing,
So the danger must be growing.

Are the fires of hell a-glowing?
Is the grisly reaper mowing?

YES! The danger must be growing,
for the rowers keep on mowing!

And they're certainly not showing
Any signs that they are slowing.


Posted by: Jewel at February 22, 2010 7:49 AM

At the time, I thought it was brilliant.
I still do.

Rumsfeld, on the lawn of the Pentagon, helping people on 9/11, told me all I need to know about Donald Rumsfeld, American patriot.

Posted by: Mike_W at February 23, 2010 2:31 AM

This wasn't originated by Rummy. I ran across it years ago ('60s, IIRC), and (also IIRC), about building advanced/experimental aircraft. Engineers and physicists would quickly see the truth in this statement.

Of course, sometimes it's the "things you know you know" that cause lots of trouble.

Posted by: Sam L. at February 28, 2010 11:44 AM