Donald Rumsfeld is not a likeable figure. With his self-assured smirk and refusal to acknowledge past wrong-doings, he’s come to represent the archetypal arrogant politician.
Yet he at least had one positive contributions to humanity, by coining the phrase “known unknown”.
That statement was originally used as evasive action to avoid answering a question about the lack of evidence for WMDs in Iraq. But it turns out that known unknown wasn’t just some random language trick.
Behind this apparent contradiction hides a deceptively useful concept.
“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.” – Donald Rumsfeld
To understand it, let’s start by considering the mini-map.
This navigation interface has become a fixture of real-time strategy games such as Starcraft, ever since being first pioneered by Westwood Studio’s genre-defining Dune II in 1992.
A mini-map is a zoomed-out, top-down view of the playing field that lets you figure out where you are in relation to the rest of the world.
As it turns out, the mini-map by itself wasn’t good enough. By giving you a omniscient view of the game, it not only removed all uncertainty, but all the fun as well.
So the mini-map works best in combination with another design pattern, the fog of war, which brings us right back to military theory.
The term “fog of war” was originally introduced by another military leader, Carl von Clausewitz, to designate the inherent uncertainty that reigns on any battlefield.
“War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.” – Carl von Clausewitz
In video games, the fog of war is a layer of darkness that covers both the mini-map and the “real”, in-game world, and hides areas which have yet to be explored.
It isn’t known if Donald Rumsfeld ever played Dune II, but in any case it turns out he credits Clausewitz’s concept as the theory behind his own famous aphorism.
So what does the video game fog of war have to do with Rumsfeld’s cryptic pronouncement?
To begin with, let’s consider the concept of known known. This is the area of the game map you’ve already explored: you’re now familiar with its terrain, features, and potential dangers.
The mini-map’s fog of war, on the other hand, lets us visualise the known unknown: we don’t know what’s there, but looking at the map’s black zones tells us at a glance how much of it there is.
In other words, we know exactly how much is still unknown.
Finally, the unknown unknown is what you get when you don’t have any mini-map at all.
Not only is the terrain unexplored, but you also don’t know how big the game arena is: it might stretch out for miles and miles of virtual nothingness, or the enemy’s base might be right next to yours.
Of course, real life doesn’t have a mini-map. Which is to say that unknown unknowns abound, and goes to explain why complex military operations rarely go as planned.
Military leaders aren’t the only ones who get fooled though. Their mistakes might have more costly consequences, but the rest of us rarely do any better.
For example, you probably don’t need a psychologist to tell you that we generally suck at estimating time and cost: we tend to base our plans off the best possible scenarios, completely forgetting to allocate resources for things that can’t yet be predicted.
This exhortation not to ignore the existence of unknown unknowns is also the central message of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s best-seller, The Black Swan.
And what about the Dunning-Kruger effect? This cognitive bias states that individuals unskilled in any particular area tend to rate their skills much higher than they really are.
Once again, we can apply the mini-map framework to explain this phenomenon: in the absence of a map, you can’t guess how big the overall game area is until you’ve started exploring. So it’s tempting to just assume that what you’re seeing now is all there is.
It also works the opposite way: the more you explore the map, the more you become conscious of how big it is, and how little of it you’ve uncovered. For this reason, highly skilled individuals can end up being less confident about their own skills, often falling prey to impostor syndrome.
As is often the case, we can take this all the way back to the ancient Greek philosophers. As related by Plato, Socrates’ paradox is often paraphrased as “I know one thing: that I know nothing”.
“This man, on one hand, believes that he knows something, while not knowing (anything). On the other hand, I — equally ignorant — do not believe (that I know anything)” – Socrates
Thousands of years before either Clausewitz or Rumsfeld, Socrates already knew that real wisdom is not just knowledge, but knowledge of what you don’t know.
Or, put another way: I bet Socrates would’ve made a great Starcraft player.