Thinking about the unknown

“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.”

Back in February 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, the then US Secretary of State, included the above passage in a speech regarding the alleged lack of evidence about Iraq’s purported arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (later proved to be the case).

It was immediately picked up by the media, and though parodied to an extent, it was examined by some notable scholars, who explored the ultimate meaning of Rumsfeld’s semantic faux pas.

There is something known as the relevance paradox, which refers to the position where we gather all the most relevant information we think we need to make a decision about something, and do so without realising that there is more information out there. Like for example, a totally radical idea to the one you come up with based on the content you have at hand.

Ultimately, we are unable to access that information, because its importance can only be deduced when we come across it. The conversation can delve deeper into all sorts of philosophical enquiry – and riveting stuff it is – so we’ll close that detour here.

Dave Brooks, Business Manager, Credit Suisse, got us thinking about this subject when he gave a talk at the last RANT Forum. As security professionals, operating in Information Security and Risk Management, we have the skills, knowledge and experience needed to protect ourselves and our clients from known threats but what about the unknown?

Mr Brooks asked delegates “How do we prepare, detect and react to the unknown?” Needless to say it was a question that had us on our toes. He had caught our attention.

We will come back to this topic in the New Year as we want the idea to ferment for a while. It’s a fascinating concept, after all, prescience, showing an aptitude to predict something that we potentially haven’t come across, is not exactly your run of the mill endeavour.


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