The What – yet another post on unknown unknowns

Dave Egger’s last book is about one of the ‘lost boys’ of the Sudan, and its title is an inspiration:

God, pleased with his greatest creation, offers the first Dinka man a choice of gifts: on the one hand, the cattle, visible and known, an animal that can feed and clothe him and last for ever; on the other hand, the What. The man asks God, “What is the What?”, but God will not reveal the answer. The What was unknown; the What could be everything or nothing. The Dinka man does not hesitate for long. He chooses the cattle, and for thousands of years Dinka lore held that he had chosen correctly; the cow is thus sacred in southern Sudanese culture, the measure of a family’s wealth and the giver of life.
It was not until the torment of the southern Sudanese in the 20th century that the Dinka began to question this choice. What was the What, they wondered, and speculation about the answer abounded: was it technology? Education? Sophisticated weapons? Whatever the answer, it was assumed that the Arabs of the north – who, legend had it, had received the What – might have got the greatest of God’s gifts, and were using this What to inflict unending pain upon the southern Sudanese.
— Dave Eggers, What is the What?

(what is the What, after all?)

But this is only inspiration. I was moved by a passage about Michael Hayden in Grant McCracken’s Flock and Flow to look up an old New Yorker article. Written by Jeffrey Goldberg in February 2003, the article is simply breathtaking. It is a close look at the ‘unknowns’ at play in the then-looming Iraq invasion. Discussing the challenges of peering into intelligence, we reminisce:

“Rumsfeld is especially drawn to Schelling’s theory of surprise; he believes that surprise is often the by-product of analytical timidity. ‘The poverty of expectations – the failure of imagination – I found this just so interesting,’ Rumsfeld said. ‘We tend to hear what we expect to hear, whether it’s bad or good. Human nature is that way. Unless something is jarring, you tend to stay on your track and get it reinforced rather than recalibrated. If I as a policymaker fail to make a conscious decision that you want to go around three hundred and sixty degrees and test things, you’re likely to stay in a rut. And we’ve seen our country do that.’

Rumsfeld believes that one long-held belief among Middle East analysts is overdue for reconsideration: the idea that doctrinal differences prevent Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and religious and secular Muslims, from pursuing common projects in anti-American terrorism. This is a subject of great relevance today, because the Bush Administration contends that Baghdaad is a sponsor of Al Qaeda; critics of the Administration’s foreign policy argue that bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are natural enemies. ‘The argument is that Al Qaeda has got a religious motivation, somehow or other, and the Iraqi regime is considered to be a secular regime,’ Rumsfeld said. ‘The answer to that is, so what? The Iraqi regime will use anything it can to its advantage. Why wouldn’t they use any implement at hand?'”

The language Rumsfeld used to make these kinds of distinctions is ‘knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.’ Knowns are facts on the ground – hopefully true, more or less agreed upon. The known unknowns are uncertainties (for those in finance, Frank Knight’s work on Uncertainty, Risk, and Profit comes to mind). They are risks, in the sense that these kinds of unknowns can be sometimes resolved (via more information, or mobilizing troops) or at least propped up against (via financial hedging, or taking profits from, or calculating civilian losses from).

More interesting, of course, are the ‘unknown unknowns.’ The unknown unknowns are the What. The unknown unknowns are ambiguity. If uncertainties can be resolved or hedged, ambiguities can not be. The What is what’s inside the mystery box, it is the assumptions that frame the questions you ask, it is the failure of imagination and poverty of expectations. We have no good ways to resolve the What, the ambiguity. What we currently do is to transform the ambiguity into uncertainty: we challenge the assumptions that Al Qaeda is a natural enemy to Saddam Hussein; we create standardized SAT tests to capture and tame the diversity of student achievement; we make standards that distinguish outsider art from collectibles from Old Masters; and sometimes we rue our own lack of foresight and thinking in doing so.

The problem in a larger sense is that there is simply not a particularly substantively rational system to be able to know when you should go with the long-held beliefs, and when you should re-evaluate them. The unknown unknowns remain an unresolvable problem for decision-makers. In the Goldberg article, it is simply astounding how possible it could have been to re-evaluate the Hussein/Al Qaeda links but absolutely wasn’t. This doesn’t mean some people don’t do it better or worse. And there are great examples to suggest that the situation in 2003 wasn’t a What, but rather an already known. But as with the quant/qual finance people – Grantham’s desire to use quants 95% of the time, handing off to a human being when you reach the edge of a cliff – there is no good way to know when you’re faced with another uncertainty, and when you’re faced with the What.

PS: There are so many other gems in this article. So much of what was described as ‘true’ by interviewees, I mean what the hell happened to it? And this article contains a Who’s Who of completely discredited foreign policy analysts, all of whom were or are directors of the CIA, NSA, Department of Defense, Secretary of State. Finally, in what I imagined would be what I wanted this post to be about, but really deserves more attention, the now-director of the CIA, then director of the NSA Michael Hayden notes: “Our noise-to-signal ration is twenty to one, that one being something useful…Not necessarily tactically useful, just remotely useful. But even this is misleading, because it’s twenty to one after we’ve done all sorts of things to make it humanly intelligible. You have to collect, process, translate, move it down the funnel, transform it from noise into a signal, before you know if it’s useful.” SvN of 1:20. Such precision!

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