American Elephants


The Known,The Unknown and The Unknowable. by The Elephant's Child

[T]here 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.        Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

This was one of those instances when someone identified  succinctly, distinctions that we often do not appreciate — and which, unappreciated, often get us into trouble.  We know, for example, that a meal of a Big Mac, a chocolate shake and french fries contains a lot of calories.  We may not know the specific number, but we know it’s a lot. We know that we know.

We do not know what causes asthma. Science knows how to treat it, but we don’t know how it develops.

But there are a lot of things out there, big dangerous things, that we just don’t know exist, and we have no idea that they are there.  Pearl Harbor was an unknown unknown.  9-11 was an unknown unknown. There are other unknowns out there.

Mr. Rumsfeld was quoted at the time as if he had made a funny statement,  or was abusing the language, but as Mark Steyn called it, it is “in fact a brilliant distillation of quite a complex matter.”

When the unknown unknown appears, there are always those who claim that we should have known.  It’s the unknowns that are disastrous in effect that cause so much anger and distress.  Why didn’t you know?  And conspiracy stories about —who really knew what, and when did they know it — are common. The conspiracy tales about the attack on Pearl Harbor and the attack on the World Trade Center are never-ending.

To put it another way, imagine that there are termites crunching away in your ceiling, and unnoticed and unattended, your roof will collapse. You might have had someone in to inspect the attic, but you had no idea that you needed to.

The current War on Terror is rife with unknown unknowns.  We can’t even come up with a name for the war that everyone will agree on.  It’s not just al Qaeda. it’s a set of beliefs shared by many who belong to the same religion, yet some seek martyrdom and celebrate killing, in massive numbers, those who do not share their belief.  We have an enormously competent military who are trying to protect and defend us, and many intelligence agencies trying to locate those who want to commit terrorism. They want us to submit.  They want us not to be who we are, for we are too modern and too rich and too corrupt for them.

Politics is full of unknown unknowns.  A belief was hatched and promoted after we had suffered through a cooling period in the 1970s, that the earth was warming too much and the seas would rise and deserts would increase and it would get too hot for life as we know it — unless we DO something! So many things were done, we started putting food crops in our gas tanks, and spending vast sums on ancient technologies like windmills and the sun without any knowledge of what the consequences would be.

Germany, frightened by the nuclear power plants in Japan, is planning to get rid of their nuclear plants and replace them with modern coal plants. They have large shale oil deposits but are afraid of fracking which has been proven over a very long period.  The British powers-that-be are true believers and insist on moving to “clean” energy, driving the cost of energy up even as increasing numbers of people slip into energy poverty — people who cannot afford the energy they need to stay warm enough to live.

Congress makes laws and agencies issue regulations without the slightest knowledge of what their effects will be.  One known known is that the effects will not be what was intended.  Covering everyone with Medicaid may become a disaster. There are not enough doctors and large numbers of those in practice will not see Medicaid patients because the federal reimbursement is so low.

The decisions about what medicines you may take or what treatment you may receive has been removed from you and your doctor and given over to small groups of federal bureaucrats.  How many will lose their lives because of this decision?

We can’t know the unknown unknowns. We can struggle to be informed, to insist that officials are accountable, and we can examine the evidence of how similar policies have worked out. Maybe it will help, but that is an unknown as well.

Don Rumsfeld has titled his memoir Known and Unknown.


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