In 1999, Cornell professor David Dunning published an academic paper called “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments”. The subject of the paper, broadly speaking, is the ignorance of our own ignorance: it argues that the when “people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.” In other words, the problem for a lot of stupid people is that they don’t even know that they’re stupid — blind to the nature of and reasons for their own mistakes, they’re resigned to continue making them while under the impression that they’re doing just fine.
This phenomenon is known, in social psychology, as the ‘Dunning-Kruger Effect’, and in the summer of 2010 it was chronicled in the New York Times in a five-part report by documentarian Errol Morris. The piece represents Morris’s effort to get to the bottom not of what we know or don’t know, but of what we don’t know we don’t know — to explore whether some information remains fundamentally unknowable or whether the exponents of the Dunning-Kruger are simply beset by a deficiency they can resolve. He explains it in terms of questions and answers: what interests him isn’t the fact that there are questions to which we know we don’t know the answer — like, say, the melting point of beryllium or the definition of the word “ctenoid”— but that there may be questions we don’t even know to ask, let alone know how to answer. In general, Dunning tells Morris, “we’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know”.
Now, fans of the director’s work will recognize this subject as a quintessentially Morrisian obsession: it’s precisely the sort of hyper-narrow topic that lends his films their idiosyncratic intrigue. In fact when Morris refers, in the piece, to a cryogenic scientist around whom he shot an episode of the interview series “First Person”, it isn’t difficult to imagine him fashioning a documentary around Dunning, too — probing the high concept, surveying the tragically oblivious specimens of his research. Well, Morris may not have gone on to make a Dunning-Kruger film, but his time with Professor Dunning did serve as the inspiration for a different project. The genesis was something idly said: pushed by his interlocutor to elaborate on the concept of “knowing what you don’t know”, Dunning invoked an infamous bit of rhetoric from twice-serving United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. It’s worth quoting the exchange at length.
"Knowing what you don’t know? Is this supposedly the hallmark of an intelligent person?"
"That’s absolutely right. It’s knowing that there are things you don’t know that you don’t know. Donald Rumsfeld gave this speech about ‘unknown unknowns’. It goes something like this: ‘There are things we know we know about terrorism. There are things we know we don’t know. And there are things that are unknown unknowns. We don’t know that we don’t know.’ He got a lot of grief for that. And I thought, ‘That’s the smartest and most modest thing I’ve heard in a year.’"
This notion must have struck a chord with Morris, because a little over three years later he would be premiering a new documentary built around precisely this quote. It’s even called, naturally, “The Unknown Known”, and it is constructed as a feature-length interview with none other than Rumsfeld himself. (The film debuted at Venice in late August and saw a limited theatrical release this week as a nominal Oscar-qualifying run.) The film has been described, perhaps somewhat backhandedly, as a portrait of a master rhetorician — a career politician whose reputation is founded on his ability to manipulate and deceive. Some critics regard this as a natural disadvantage for Morris, who of course remains unable to penetrate the veneer of party-line professionalism Rumsfeld has long reinforced. But that’s very much the point: Morris doesn’t so much want to catch Rumsfeld off-guard as he does want to reveal the nuance and sophistication of his strategies, to convey the man’s peerless knack for deflection.
“I found myself puzzled by unknown unknowns”, Morris reflects in his New York Times piece. “Finally, I came up with an explanation. Using the expressions ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ is just a fancy — even pretentious — way of talking about questions and answers.” The film seems to arrive, after exhausting its subject’s patience, at a similar conclusion. Morris isn’t particularly impressed by what amounts to more or less a rhetorical device, one which may raise deeper questions but which makes no attempt to grapple with them itself. Rumsfeld never intended to develop a philosophy of human thought and ignorance; he merely furnished a scholar of social psychology with the language to better address those concerns, doubtless unaware of the depth he’d incidentally suggested.
“The Unknown Known” takes on a new dimension when you realize how abstract and intellectual its origins were: when you recognize how far removed the world of Rumsfeld’s war-speak is from the world of academia to which Morris’s questions of ‘unknown unknowns’ belong, Rumsfeld himself begins to look more like a prime example of the Dunning-Kruger in action. Maybe what “The Unknown Known” is about, finally, is what Rumsfeld doesn’t know he doesn’t know. And that may be quite a bit.
"The Unknown Known" had an Oscar-qualifying run late last year, and will open in theaters on April 2nd, 2014.