Known and Unknown Unknowns

We often have to believe the stories of Herodotus, because he is the only source, and we cannot evaluate the quality of his information.

We often have to believe the stories of Herodotus, because he is the only source, and we cannot evaluate the quality of his information.

Many people have ridiculed Donald Rumsfeld’s remarks about the known and unknown unknowns; he even got a satirical prize for them. That was highly undeserved, and not only because the Secretary of Defense’s words were a brilliant piece of found poetry:

The Unknown
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.

I am quoting these words in the first place because I like them as a free-speaking verse, but also because Rumsfeld made a very good point. He accurately describes an epistemological problem that faces every historian: unus testis, nullus testis.

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One Response to Known and Unknown Unknowns

  1. Justin says:

    Bryant Kong set them to music here – http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1761585

    My favorite, from the effervescent Secretary:

    Oh my goodness gracious,
    What you can buy off the Internet
    In terms of overhead photography!

    A trained ape can know an awful lot
    Of what is going on in this world,
    Just by punching on his mouse
    For a relatively modest cost!

    —June 9, 2001, following European trip

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