Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Unknown Unknowns

Blogomatopoeia takes people to task for citing the zen of Donald Rumsfeld. RTWT. A choice sampling:

So before we spend another working day in an epistemological tizzy, can we pause to connect Rummy's spooky koan with the historical moment that inspired it? Please? Breaks down like this:

We know Iraq has WMDs.
I know it.
Colin Powell knows it.
George Tenet knows it.
President Bush really knows it.
It is a known known.
Now, we can't seem to find these WMDs.
But at lesat we know we don't know where they are.
It is a known unknown.
And before you ask any more questions ...
Just think of all the WMDs we don't even know we don't know about!
Beware the unknown unknowns!

This idea of not knowing how much danger is out there is less zen and more Department of Fear.

I think it also plays into President Bush's position as a particularly Postmodern President. The concept of at least some truths being independent and verifiable is attacked at its very core, and once that is removed, the Bush Administration can basically move around the goal-posts on fact however is convenient.

Note how Rumsfeld backs up the "Known Knowns":
I know it.
Colin Powell knows it.
George Tenet knows it.
President Bush really knows it.
So clearly we know it, because all of these people know it. And presumably, they are experts. So if these experts know it, clearly it is known. (and there's a little truthiness bonus there: President Bush really knows it).

The problem isn't the concept of known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns; the problem is how to put what facts in what boxes, and Post-modernism usually holds (depending on the strain or thinker) that there's no objective method to put things in those boxes. There's no requirement at any point to compare things to an objective reality, because you can always argue that your understanding of objective reality is flawed.

For instance, President Bush really knows that there was WMD in Iraq. To the best of Hans Blix's knowledge, there were no WMD in Iraq. We invaded, and seven years later we can't find any weapons of mass destruction. To me, that says "There were no Weapons of Mass Destruction." But President Bush could say that the WMD were moved to Syria. Could we verify it? Maybe, if we invaded Syria. And if we didn't find the WMD there? Well, they could have been destroyed, or moved to Iran.

That's the frustration, the fundamental problem that we circle around, and which I've been trying to put together my Pragmatic philosophy to try and take to task.