A mind boggling subject, is it not? When I first came across terms like known unknowns and unknown unknowns, I thought this must be a weird mistake in phrasing.
After discussing these particular terms, they were not discarded as an error. They are not jokes, even though they might seem funny. The known unknowns and similar types of information are part of management theory.
As a matter of fact, they are artifacts of modern management. They are most commonly found in modern risk management, but they could be part of all types of management. Let me try to summarize the four artifacts of this risk management conception.
This simply defines what we know and that we know that we know. These are not a negative aspect when assessing risk.
Example: My tooth hurts. A wisdom tooth needs to get extracted. I need a dentist appointment for next week.
This particular type of information is slightly more relevant for assessing and managing risk. Part of this category are the things that we know that we do not know them.
Example: My tooth hurts. I don’t know what’s wrong. I don’t know what to do next, and I don’t know when it can be resolved.
This type is rather critical to a risk assessment. This defines the things we do not know about and have no information that they exist.
Example: I am not aware of any problems with my teeth.
This fourth type was subsequentially added by psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek. They define the information that we intentionally refuse to acknowledge.
Example: My tooth hurts. I don’t know why. I don’t do anything about it, keep it to myself and hope it’ll go away on its own.
Rumsfeld and his use of this concept
On February 12, 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, who was United States Secretary of Defense at that time, used these terms in a speech. When holding his speech, Rumsfeld made a mistake to communicate information as if he was talking with risk managers and using their lingo. Management terms are not part of the lingua franca of today.
Just like I got confused with this concept on my first contact with these terms, this quote was taken apart by people and media first. Only later, analysists, columnists, economists, philosophers, and sociologists have agreed that Rumsfeld managed to put a rather virtual concept into simple words if you look beyond the initial confusion.
YouTube: Donald Rumsfeld Unknown Unknowns