Donald Rumsfeld, Tacit Knowledge and the Relevance Paradox
Donald Rumsfeld’s theory of knowledge
“Donald Rumsfeld’s theory of knowledge – as expounded in March 2003, when the then US defence secretary engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophising: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” What Rumsfeld forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns” – things we don’t know that we know, all the unconscious beliefs and prejudices that determine how we perceive reality and intervene in it” – Slavoj Zizek Guardian, Saturday June 28 2008.
Of course “how we perceive reality and intervene in it” is in fact tacit knowledge.
Rumsfeld actually put it very well, we all suffer from “unknown unknowns” and these can allow us to have technically incorrect opinions, which we sincerely believe are soundly based, but are not. Our certainty comes from the knowledge we have which appears to be complete, so we see no reason to investigate other spheres which we already know (or think we know) are wrong or irrelevant.
Another way of putting this is the Relevance Paradox, where there is important information which if we had, we would use. but because we don’t have it, we don’t at that time see the relevance of gaining it. (Its a bit like losing your glasses – if you had your glasses, you could find your glasses, but without them you can’t)An example of this would be that many people sincerely believe that because self evidently it is not windy all the time, then wind power cannot be a serious contender to generate large amounts of power. They only hold this view because their view seems to them reasonable so they have never felt the relevance of finding out about grid inter-connectors, switchable loads, standby plant and so on, because their present state of knowledge tells them this is irrelevant.
Civil engineers built numerous irrigation schemes in the post war years, which inflicted serious water born diseases on people they were supposed to help – they didn’t know about the UN guidelines on how to simply design these schemes to minimise the occurrences of these diseases – the engineers were the victims of the relevance paradox.
The solution to the The Relevance Paradox and the means to acquire tacit knowledge are to become involved in the dialogues of the Claverton Network, and the use of the concept of Interlock Research, both of which were designed with these issues in mind.
Fred Starr’s Fifth Unknown
Dr Fred Starr has also pointed out the fifth unknown for politicians, managers and sales people are the “Known Knowns which they would prefer to remain Unknown”.
Or rather, as is often the case, they are Known, but no one dares talk about them for fear of losing their job or some other retribution. This is of course the well known taboo.
6th Known – Known Knowns by some people
That is things known or suspected by some people, that people in power don’t want even discussed in case they prove to be true, meantime they can pretend they are unknown. This would be things like the graduate engineers who interconnected the National Grid sub regions in the 30s one night as an experiment, without telling there bosses and against all instructions. They turned it all off again after a while with no ill effects. Whilst the sky didn’t in fact fall in on them, when what they had done leaked out, they all got a jolly good telling off. It was normal to run interconnected all the time by 1938″
Or we could cite the astonishing fact that Britain’s power stations waste heat energy equally to the entire import of natural gas, and it could have been harvested, as to the Danes to heat building, at a stroke halving our gas imports, and CO2 emissions from power stations. The Civil Service does not want this discussed or known, preferring to allow, for reasons we can only gas at, and presumably not unconnected with non executive directorships when they retire, to allow the large energy companies to carry on selling us as much energy as they can, rather than a lot less of what we actually need.