Unknown unknowns

I’ve been trying to put my finger on why things seem so ‘slow’ in spite of purported chaos of the Trump administration. The answer is, although there are a lot of unknowns and uncertainties (FBI, Korea, Syria, immigration, Russia, etc.), they are ‘known’.

In 2002 Donald Rumsfeld famously said:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because 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. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.[1]

Interestingly, since the election of Trump, there have been no ‘unknown unknowns’. There are a lot of known unknowns, but the have been in the news for well over a year, sometimes multiple, and progress has been very incremental. Examples of unknown unknowns were 911 and the 2008 financial crisis, because they were sudden and unforeseen, especially 911. Trump winning the GOP nomination could have also been another example.

Can one predict unknown unknowns? Sorta. Often then there is a known risk, but then also an unforeseen factor. Nuclear war, for example, could be both an unknown known and an unknown unknown. The DOD obviously knows such a risk exists, but it has not happened, which makes it unknown. A portable nuke being smuggled into the United States and then detonated is a known risk, but the unknown factor is–if it were to happen–how the perpetrators were able to evade America’s defense and intelligence systems. That is the unknown part. The sinking of the Titanic was another example. The possibility of it sinking was known, which is why it had lifeboats although not enough for everyone, but no one could have foreseen the sinking to be so dramatic and so many people dying. 911 is probably one of the best examples, because although the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing (another unknown-unknown) made the government heightened to the possibility of domestic terrorism, no one could have foreseen commercial planes being hijacked with primitive weapons (box cutters) and then the airplanes themselves converted into projectiles in such a devastating manner. Up until 911, the trend had always been when a commercial airliner is hijacked, for the hijackers to demand a ransom of some sort, and then the plane is diverted and the passengers are usually unharmed. The question is, will there be another crisis of similar magnitude; the answer is, almost certainly. Evil people, if given enough time, always find ways to carry out their deeds. It’s possible there will be a repeat of 2008, although the odds are still extremely slim. Maybe not for another 40 years.