Monday, May 13, 2013

Rumsfeld forgot the unknown knowns

I'm slogging my way through Steve Pinker's Better Angels book on the history of violence so I can finally write about how it's convincing and give it a negative review. Not done yet though, I'm only on page 534 and still have several hundred pages to go.

Way back on page 514 there was something worth writing about, an update on Donald Rumsfeld's sole contribution to humanity:  he talked about known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, a useful way to look at problems. What Rumsfeld missed, says Pinker citing Dominic Johnson citing Slavoj Zizek, is unknown knowns, which are things known or knowable but are ignored or suppressed.

The context for Pinker was unknown knowns that Rumsfeld and the Bushies had in front of them about Iraq - lack of nuclear weapons development particularly, and the lack of a plan for governing the country. Unknown knowns applies even better to climate change - the evidence is hitting us in the face, literally so in some cases, and mountains of data and history available for anyone to see, but half of American politics refuses to see it. I doubt we'll get the hardcore denialists to know them, but we need to move the fencesitters so they're not stuck by the same unknown knowns.

UPDATE:  lifted from someone else's comment:

If the rational course of action involves admitting that you cannot have what you most want, don't bet on the persons involved being rational.


Lars Karlsson said...

I'm currently reading "Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life" by Kari Marie Norgaard, which is about this issue.

bill said...

I just finished Taleb's Black Swan and it's review time; I'm pondering accusing him of being a hedgehog! (Rather than a fox, that is - he advocates being the latter, if you haven't read it.)

Overall I found it more infuriating than Pinker's How the Mind Works, which I almost abandoned at the early discussion of the Chinese Room ('it depends what you mean by "understand"'? Give me a break!), and was very glad I didn't. Language Instinct was excellent. I've got Better Angels loaded as an audio-book, but it's a few down the list - he discussed it briefly in Dawkins' BBC series, IIRC.

I still got a lot out of Taleb, but had, topically enough, been wondering about what you do about Invisible Swans; the 'Black Swan' disasters that are only black because no-one wants to see them...

Much as I despised Rumsfeld I thought all the scoffing over 'unknown unknowns' was completely wrongheaded.

(And Pinker quotes Žižek - wow!)

Jeffrey Davis said...

I don't know why we dignify the "deniers" with words like "denial". That's passive. They are actively agreeing to ruin the planet.

EliRabett said...

Now some, not Eli to be sure, think that rejectionist is a better word, beyond denial.

It's not that these other folks don't believe science, they reject science, sometimes with lip service, sometimes hillariously. We only have to look at the Gerlichs, the Chillingers, the Manuels and more for the funny page side, but even folk who should know better fall into the trap of rejectionism. And, of course, we have the rejectionist for the sake of controversy which sells papers crowd, the Kloors and their pals.

Anonymous said...

Rumsfeld did not simply "miss" the "unknown knowns".

It was quite purposeful, as is denial in many cases.

Tobacco companies quite actively denied the dangers of smoking, knowing full well that smoking was dangerous because their own scientists had told them so.

Denial is actually a very apt description of climate change 'skeptics' because it describes both types: those who would purposefully hide the truth from others and those who would (subconsciously) hide the truth from themselves (the latter being a classic defense mechanism)


Hank Roberts said...

“It's not what you don't know that kills you, it's what you know for sure that ain't true.”

― Mark Twain

Lars Karlsson said...

On the subject on tobacco companies, I would recommend "Golden holocaust" by Robert Proctor. You'll never look at a cigarette with filter the same way.

Russell Seitz said...

Iraq's investment in nuclear weapons research in the 1980's was a known known, and going great guns at the time of their invasion of Kuwait, which is why the UN went in and dismantled the resulting labs-- and calutrons, after 41's Gulf War.

The naughty neocons who railroaded '43 into the Iraq war deserve a hiding for hyping terminated research as evidence of devlopment .

Anonymous said...

What is still one of the greatest "unknown knowns" related to Iraq is that the fellow on whom the Bush gang were basing many of their "bulletproof" claims about WMD (fed to and faithfully printed by Judith Miller at the NYT) was an unknown known liar.

The Germans warned the US about this and, ironically, even his code name, "Curve ball", conveyed this basic fact.

But the thing that one should bear in mind (and this gets back to the claim that Rummy somehow just "forgot/missed' the unknown knowns) is that Rumsfeld, Cheney, Powell, Tennet and the rest are not stupid. Far from it.

They just think the rest of us are if they believe we buy into the idea that they were merely duped. (But by and large, they might be right).


a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

Russell, Bush '43 choose to go in Iraq as an alternative to Viagra. It had more to do with Oedipus than Sodamn Insane.

Susan Anderson said...

my sympathies on the task: better you than me.

As for Rumsfeld, you cut him too much slack. He was a prime mover in creating unknowing of knowns, and this malignancy contributed to the snowball of unknowledge at this present. I don't believe he didn't know what he was doing; also he made a lot of money doing it.

(but having fun with words doesn't remove the awful consequences)

Susan Anderson said...

rejectionists - thanks, will use it. I'm tired of arguing with repetitive climate losers, and they endanger the rest of us. As I've often said, it's easier to destroy than to build.

Jeffrey Davis said...

My "favorite" moment of the war in Iraq was the incident where the advancing American army found a warehouse full of glowing barrels of radioactive goo. Here they were! Here were the WMDs!

Except not.

What they'd found was the nuclear waste from Iraq's research nuclear reactor. When we'd shut it down following the first Gulf War nobody had done anything with its waste. It was stored, practically unattended, and definitely unguarded until the Army moved in. Where it is now is anybody's guess.

Following 9/11, there was no shortage of speculation about what terrorists would do next. I remember at least 2 TV shows about "dirty" bombs and how easily they would paralyze the country. Well, as it turns out, nobody -- not even terrorists -- wants to handle savagely radioactive waste. There in the middle of Iraq was enough glowing poison for thousands of dirty bombs. Yet, following the initial triumphalist announcement of its discovery the story died. I suspect that the reeling nuclear industry let it be known that they didn't appreciate all the attention given to such matters. But I don't know.

If you aren't familiar with the incident there's two possibilities: a) it was squashed very successfully or b) I dreamed it.

Russell Seitz said...

Never forget the knowns we never suspected were unknowable:

The NLS has just cropped up in all its fractal glory in energy partitioning at the Air-Sea interface

Jeffrey Davis said...

What combination of settings does it take to get the ampersand-etc escape sequences to render as a single character rather than the ampersand-etc characters? This page is encoded UTF-8 but setting 4 different browsers (Chrome, IE, Firefox, Opera) to UTF-8 doesn't do it.

Susan Anderson said...

Russell, that is fascinating (and as usual a mite above my skill level). When I have time I will have to absorb what I can (not enough) and combine with what I have also been unable to fully assimilate on planetary waves:
(original Nature article is behind a paywall)

(and you may be tempted to remark: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, or either praise or criticize me for effort!)