Known Knowns, Known Unknowns, Unknown Knowns, Unknown Unknowns

Donald Rumsfeld in a 2002 press conference fostered the birth of the memes of “known knowns” and “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” which, to be frank, has long been a mystery to me. So I thought I needed to unpack it today as I can see it’s pretty important when considering the nature of black swans (versus white swans). Apparently it reaches back to the Greek era … I wish I had studied history better when I was younger.

Apparently there’s an Islamic philosopher named Ibn Yami from the 13th century who wrote:

One who knows and knows that he knows… his horse of wisdom will reach the skies.

One who knows, but doesn’t know that he knows… he is fast asleep, so you should wake him up!

One who doesn’t know, but knows that he doesn’t know… his limping mule will eventually get him home.

One who doesn’t know and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know… he will be eternally lost in his hopeless oblivion!

Ibn Yami

My own distillation of this matter with how people might feel about knowing versus not knowing is the following:

The more you know, the more afraid you’ll be.

OR alternatively:

The more you know, the more prepared you’ll be.


It’s easier to look backwards to the past than it is to muster the strength to look forward into the future. Because you’ll likely be wrong if you look forward, versus more easily looking backwards.

But let’s get back to Donald Rumsfeld.

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

Donald Rumsfeld (2002)

I scoured the Internet for different interpretations of this space, and came to the a much better understanding than when I started. I’m feeling that this is a very KNOWN KNOWN table on this topic :+).

Low Problem UnderstandingHigh Problem Understanding
Your data lacks some accuracy
Know solution if know problem
Untapped knowledge
Hidden facts
Brainstorm, group sketching
Findability, collective memory
We understand but aren’t aware
“IDK but someone does—get them.”
The data you currently track
Know problem + solution
Not risks and manageable
Facts and requirements
Analogies, lateral thinking
Reporting, news
We are aware and understand
“I know and I’ve got this.”
Triangulating all your data
Be prepared to react well
We know nothing
Unknown risks
Research, explore
Big data, ML
Neither aware nor understand
“Huh? How did that happen?”
Data you want but can’t track
Startup-style build.test.learn
Classic risks and predominant
Known risks
Build hypothesis, measure, iterate
Analytics, data mining
We are aware but don’t understand
“I know that I don’t know it all.”

Distilling many thoughts on this topic from the Internet, I came to this picture 👆above. The vertical axis is, Top: High Data Availability, Below: Low Data Availability.
Sources: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

There’s a clever diagram over on US Journal that is a re-interpretation by a Steven Poole — I’ve redrawn it below.

via usjournal

Relatedly, the Johari Window seems to capture another point of view on ME knowing versus OTHERS knowing quite brilliantly.

Johari Window via Wikipedia