Know What You Don’t Know (Part 2)

Donald Rumsfeld

Regardless of what you think of Donald Rumsfeld (see Part 1 of this discussion), stay with me on this. It is possible to know what you don’t know, and Rumsfeld made it his job to keep at it. It is too easy to laugh this one off as gibberish fluffy talk. Conservative columnist and political commentary Mark Steyn explained the significance of Rumsfeld’s statements in this humorous way:

“[Rumsfeld’s] little riff about known knows, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns is in fact a brilliant distillation of the dangers we face. Let’s take an example close to the heart of arrogant Texas cowboys: John Wayne is holed up in an old prospector’s shack. He peeks over the sill and drawls, ‘It’s quiet out there. Too quiet.’ What he means is that he knows the things he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know the precise location of the bad guys, but he knows they’re out there somewhere, inching through the dust, perhaps trying to get to the large cactus from behind which they can get a clean shot at him. Thus he knows what to be on the lookout for: he is living in a world of known unknowns. But suppose, while he was scanning the horizon for a black hat or the glint of a revolver, a passenger jet suddenly ploughed into the shack. That would be one of Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns: something poor John Wayne didn’t know he didn’t know–until it hit him.” [Mark Steyn, America Alone, Regnery 2008, page 147.]

When I watched the video from Wednesday’s post, I sensed Rumsfeld trying to reason with the press corp. They laughed at him as if he were on drugs, but what he said is a reflection of the press corp’s incompetence, not Rumsfeld’s. People who think they know what they don’t know (i.e. the Press Corp) fall victim to populist thinking, but they have no idea about the unknown. I’ve tried to explain “unknown unknowns” to people who think they know everything. It’s painful. They don’t get it, largely because they don’t think outside their reality.

I don’t mean to sound snarky. This is just the way some people think. They have blinders on, and they go through life blindly, typically hurting others and most often themselves. Think of the person who judges a difficult decision in your life before results come in to prove its effectiveness. Or the one who is quick to point out your shortcomings to trials you must face. Or the one who asks questions not for clarification but to push an agenda opposed to yours.

If there were a Thinker’s Preamble, it would be “know what you don’t know.” Thinkers attempt to know what they don’t know, always with the understanding that there is an infinite amount of knowledge that they don’t know what they don’t know. Isn’t it ironic? Those who refuse to admit they don’t know certain things (many things?) are usually those who bring more pain into their lives out of sure ignorance than anything else. Sometimes they finally see the error of their ways, but they often slap their palms in their foreheads and say, “What was I thinking?”

That’s the problem. They weren’t thinking. A most profound key to intelligence is knowing what you don’t know. While the Pentagon’s Press Corp scoffed at Rummy’s so-called language blunder, thinkers knew better. The laugh was on them.

I’m looking forward to reading Rumsfeld’s memoirs. I’m sure he’ll teach me things I don’t know.

About Chris Jeub

Chris is the father of 16 children, busily running the family businesses and learning the depths of love along the way.

  • Bjmjasay

    I’m sharing these two articles with my 13 and 14 year old boys. I think they’ll benefit from them. I know that I did! Thank you!

  • Lori B

    I bet that’ll be a fascinating read. I’m reading GWBush’s Decision Points right now, and it fascinating to “know” some of the “unknown” of what really happened in the decision making process. I specifically read last night about Rumsfelds handling of bringing his resignation to Bush 3 times and having Bush reject it each time. Gives you respect for both men.

    • Anonymous

      I also remember how brutally critical people were of these men, when really
      they had no idea. Interesting how the truth eventually shakes out.