Saturday Sermon: The Sayings of Chairman Rumsfeld

One of the odd ideas to have arisen is that one can have a good idea, but not express it well. With rare exceptions, in my experience, that isn’t the case: poorly communicated ideas are usually a result of poor ideas. With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to revisit one of former Secretary of War Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s utterances.

While reading this, keep in mind that Rumsfeld once told Paul Wolfowitz (yes, that Wolfowitz) that one should “Begin with an illogical premise and proceed logically to an illogical conclusion.” Here’s a classic Rumsfeld:

The message is that there are no “knowns.” There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we didn’t know. but there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. So when we do the bes we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say well, that’s basically what we see as the situation, that is really only the known knowns and the known unknowns. And each year, we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns…There’s another way to phrase that and that is that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

What’s sad is that if his previous political history had been seriously discussed, his lunacy would have been exposed. Of course, had our Mandarin class actually thought, instead gotten all gooey over his machismo, they would have realize his craziness was in plain sight.

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8 Responses to Saturday Sermon: The Sayings of Chairman Rumsfeld

  1. Karl says:

    Or, as Arthur Clarke said, not only is the Universe stranger than you imagine, it is stranger than you can imagine.

  2. Markk says:

    Ok I’ll bite, Whats wrong with what he said? Anyone who has done any planning with say 100K dollar budgets or more ( at least 5 people working on it) and has had to manage the project from budget through either cancellation or achievement or failure has had to deal with this exact idea. There are always the uncertainties you take into account in planning, and there are always the ones you never even considered at all. So whats the big deal? Rumsfeld talks like Eisenhower?
    By the way I would absolutely disagree with your original statement also: “poorly communicated ideas are usually a result of poor ideas”. Virtually every good idea I have seen in business started out as a poorly communicated idea first. In fact I would like you to give me any example of a good idea where if we looked earlier we wouldn’t find that same idea hidden away somewhere, not expressed well.

  3. natural cynic says:

    Shermer has Rumsfeld making sense, at least within some contexts.

  4. Scott says:

    I’m with Markk. I’ve read this before. Everyone seems to ridicule it, but (in this case) Rumsfeld is right. Perhaps there is a better way to express the notion of things you don’t know that you don’t know, or things you know that you don’t know?
    I’ve also heard him quoted as saying something about, “things that we don’t know that we know”. On the face of it, that seems ridiculous. How can you not know that you know something? But in that instance, the “we” was the institutional group. That is, the group as a whole (or the leader of the group in particular) doesn’t know that there is someone in the group who does know a particular fact. This is a symptom of a communication break down within the group.

  5. jim says:

    “Clarity” is also a function of the experience of the audience. Statements that are completely opaque to some are intuitively obvious to people who live with them.
    I’m with Scott and Markk. This quote verges on great writing — just consider how memorable and widely quoted it is — and deserves to be reprinted in introductory project management handbooks.
    I prefer Slate’s formatting:
    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.
    In more advanced handbooks, subsequent stanzas would probably have to get into the qualitative and quantitative aspects of “knowability”, and that’s where it might get murky!

  6. drb says:

    In the context in which Rumsfeld was speaking, the “unknown unknowns” were in fact “known knowns”. It became expedient to grandstand by cynically relabelling the predictions of the experts as being wholly speculative when their knowledgeable assessments were dismissed for crass political purposes alone. Rumsfeld’s disingenuous reasoning that the discouraging military situation we have found ourselves in was not predictable is laughably false. “Unknown unknowns”, indeed.

  7. jim says:

    In the context in which Rumsfeld was speaking, the “unknown unknowns” were in fact “known knowns”.

    The issue of whether Rumsfeld was dissembling or evading at the time he said it, which is a good question, is quite different from whether the statement is clear.
    Maybe the fact that Mike posted with a complaint about its clarity rather than its truthfulness is a testament to its artfulness and success.

  8. Shenda says:

    Though he stated it poorly, Rummy was referring to a concept that is widely used in problem solving, planning and project management. Unfortunately, he makes it clear that he does not understand the concept he is trying to explain.
    The proper use of the ?you don?t know what you don?t know? concept is to make sure you get as many qualified people as possibleinvolved in planning a project. Because more people generally know more that fewer people, there is less ignorance, and the chance of getting blindsided with something you had no idea existed is lessened.
    Rummy, however, decided he knew more than everyone else. The results speak for themselves.

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