Unknown Unknowns

For the serious discussion of weighty matters and worldly issues. No off-topic posts allowed.

Moderators: Azrael, Moderators General, Prelates

morriswalters
Posts: 7073
Joined: Thu Jun 03, 2010 12:21 am UTC

Unknown Unknowns

Postby morriswalters » Mon Jun 21, 2010 1:09 pm UTC

I discovered this Opinion piece at the New York Times. The phrase unknown unknowns comes from a speech from Donald Rumsfeld about intelligence information. However the piece discusses how we know what we know and more importantly how we figure out what we don't know and how we know when we don't know. Very twisted. I offer it for discussion in SB because of it's nature.

User avatar
Zamfir
I built a novelty castle, the irony was lost on some.
Posts: 7588
Joined: Wed Aug 27, 2008 2:43 pm UTC
Location: Nederland

Re: Unknown Unknowns

Postby Zamfir » Mon Jun 21, 2010 4:01 pm UTC

I found Rumsfeld's comment truly obnoxious. At that very moment, the guy was planning an invasion and occupation of a hostile country, and he was planning to do it on a shoestring budget without any thought for the aftermath.

Pretty much everybody was shouting that things like that don't go to plan, and end up worse than you expext. But instead of listening, he lectures the world on 'unknown unknowns'.

Things you didn't and couldn't expext happen all the time. It's why you stick an 'unexpected' post to your budgets. There is absolutely nothing deep about it.

morriswalters
Posts: 7073
Joined: Thu Jun 03, 2010 12:21 am UTC

Re: Unknown Unknowns

Postby morriswalters » Mon Jun 21, 2010 5:08 pm UTC

I don't particularly like Rumsfeld either. The concept however is interesting. The construction of the Tacoma Narrows bridge in 1940 would be an example. The actual title of the article is "The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is "

User avatar
Zamfir
I built a novelty castle, the irony was lost on some.
Posts: 7588
Joined: Wed Aug 27, 2008 2:43 pm UTC
Location: Nederland

Re: Unknown Unknowns

Postby Zamfir » Mon Jun 21, 2010 6:44 pm UTC

morriswalters wrote:I don't particularly like Rumsfeld either. The concept however is interesting. The construction of the Tacoma Narrows bridge in 1940 would be an example. The actual title of the article is "The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is "


Unexpected things can happen, although not too often or they wouldn't be unexpected. People deal with that all the time. It's hardly new.

I work in nuclear engineering, so "what if we still missed something' is always present. The main way to deal with it is defense in depth: there are successive layers to break before something really unacceptable happens. So if for some reason an unexpected event negates a barrier, there are always more.

Another way we deal is by analysing deterministic events: you simply assume a certain combination of events happens, and show that you can deal with the effects. Another analysis might try to estimate the odds of that combination of events, but if you missed something in that analysis you have still shown deteministically that you can handle the events. A typical example is a "loss of coolant accident": you simply evaluate all possible locations where the system might leak, small or massively big, without thinking about reasons why it might have a leak there.

Yet another method: conservatism. If you don't fully understand a phenomenon, assume the worst.

Of course, you still aim to be complete. Here too you can use some sort of conservatism: if a certain outcome should have odds of less than 1 in 10e6 years, you try to list all causes with odds up to 10e-8. That doesn't guarantee you find all, but it means you are likely to identify all 10-e7 causes.

morriswalters
Posts: 7073
Joined: Thu Jun 03, 2010 12:21 am UTC

Re: Unknown Unknowns

Postby morriswalters » Mon Jun 21, 2010 8:39 pm UTC

Perhaps I should have posted the article behind a spoiler. One of the concepts talked about by the article is the idea that when you make a decision that you use the "intellect" you have. If it is not competent then the researcher suggests you can't make good decisions, and that you won't necessarily know the decision is not good. The spoiler explains the title of the article.

Spoiler:
DAVID DUNNING: An anosognosic patient who is paralyzed simply does not know that he is paralyzed. If you put a pencil in front of them and ask them to pick up the pencil in front of their left hand they won’t do it. And you ask them why, and they’ll say, “Well, I’m tired,” or “I don’t need a pencil.” They literally aren’t alerted to their own paralysis. There is some monitoring system on the right side of the brain that has been damaged, as well as the damage that’s related to the paralysis on the left side. There is also something similar called “hemispatial neglect.” It has to do with a kind of brain damage where people literally cannot see or they can’t pay attention to one side of their environment. If they’re men, they literally only shave one half of their face. And they’re not aware about the other half. If you put food in front of them, they’ll eat half of what’s on the plate and then complain that there’s too little food. You could think of the Dunning-Kruger Effect as a psychological version of this physiological problem. If you have, for lack of a better term, damage to your expertise or imperfection in your knowledge or skill, you’re left literally not knowing that you have that damage. It was an analogy for us.[12]

User avatar
Cleverbeans
Posts: 1378
Joined: Wed Mar 26, 2008 1:16 pm UTC

Re: Unknown Unknowns

Postby Cleverbeans » Tue Jun 22, 2010 12:40 am UTC

morriswalters wrote:One of the concepts talked about by the article is the idea that when you make a decision that you use the "intellect" you have. If it is not competent then the researcher suggests you can't make good decisions, and that you won't necessarily know the decision is not good.


How is this anything other than obvious? Or are you suggesting that when we consider this, Rumsfeld's decisions actually make sense?
"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." - Abraham Lincoln

morriswalters
Posts: 7073
Joined: Thu Jun 03, 2010 12:21 am UTC

Re: Unknown Unknowns

Postby morriswalters » Tue Jun 22, 2010 2:14 am UTC

Cleverbeans wrote:
morriswalters wrote:One of the concepts talked about by the article is the idea that when you make a decision that you use the "intellect" you have. If it is not competent then the researcher suggests you can't make good decisions, and that you won't necessarily know the decision is not good.


How is this anything other than obvious? Or are you suggesting that when we consider this, Rumsfeld's decisions actually make sense?


I hate doing it this way. But the question is not did the decision make sense, but would Rumsfeld been able to know if it didn't. Rumsfeld had better facts that you or I and is intelligent and knowledgeable. And did, and probably still does, believe he did the right thing. If his decision is demonstrably incorrect, than why does he believe it? We expect our leaders to make rational decisions. However, how rational are the ones they make? How much is politics or incompetence or just the mindset they bring to the problem? To generalize, how do you make good decisions, and how do you know they are good? By the way for the record, I DON'T LIKE RUMSFELD. Thank you.

User avatar
Krong
Posts: 288
Joined: Sun Jan 24, 2010 12:49 am UTC
Location: Charleston, South Cackalacky

Re: Unknown Unknowns

Postby Krong » Tue Jun 22, 2010 2:54 am UTC

Reading through this article, I'm finding it hard to understand the dividing line between "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns."

Take the engineering example of designing a gizmo. A "known unknown" would be something like "The pressure on the flimflam is unknown, so our design has to work for a variety of pressures." An "unknown unknown" would be something like "We didn't even think about the effects of condensation on the whatzit -- we didn't ask the right questions." Makes sense.

But then suppose the engineer says, "There a possible unknown issues with the gizmo, so our design has to be robust against failure." Is the meta-question of "Are there problems I haven't thought of?" enough to transform an unknown unknown into a known unknown? It seems like the dividing line between unknown unknowns and known unknowns is clear within one level of reasoning, but not so clear when you're allowed to move between levels.

Does my question make sense, or am I misunderstanding the article here?
The answer to the question "What’s wrong with the world?" is just two words: "I am." -- G. K. Chesterton (attributed)

User avatar
meatyochre
Posts: 1524
Joined: Mon Apr 05, 2010 7:09 am UTC
Location: flying with the Conchords

Re: Unknown Unknowns

Postby meatyochre » Tue Jun 22, 2010 3:24 am UTC

First off, Rumsfeld is not the point under discussion. At all. Talking about whether he's dumb or not is completely irrelevant to the thread. It's SB folks, read the entire article.

I thought a nice springboard for discussion would be to discuss known unknowns, like god, which were not covered by the article at all. Plenty of people currently believe in god (billions of them, in fact), but it's totally impossible to understand the mechanisms behind god's decision-making process, or how it works. I can't think of any other known unknowns though. I'd appreciate some more feedback there.

(I tried typing this earlier when replying to the last post in the thread, but the person I replied to deleted their post between when I hit reply and when I finished typing, and then I couldn't get my words back. :twisted: so, I had more to say but I can't remember it all)
Dark567 wrote:"Hey, I created a perpetual motion device"

"yeah, but your poster sucks. F-"

Image

morriswalters
Posts: 7073
Joined: Thu Jun 03, 2010 12:21 am UTC

Re: Unknown Unknowns

Postby morriswalters » Tue Jun 22, 2010 2:17 pm UTC

I'm on shakey ground here so forgive me if miss the mark. The failure of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge would represent an unknown, unknown. The design of the bridge used fairly new techniques and ran into a problem that they never thought about, resonance produced by wind moving through the roadbed structure. Engineering functions this way, particularly on the bleeding edge. Some times you have to find out how things break by trying them. They didn't think about the problem because they couldn't, their knowledge was incomplete. Now wind tunnel testing is always used in design of structures that face wind.

The question for me is how this applies to the decision making process for individuals. Rumsfeld actually makes a perfect foil to examine the idea with. By definition the idea of imperfect data is a problem all Americans deal with when they have to evaluate an idea which they have little first hand data. How do you reason your way to a correct conclusion assuming one exists. So how can you examine Rumsfeld's decisions when your data on why he is making them is imperfect? I would guess that most people make their decisions using their internal bias's and emotion, but is there another, better, way?

meatyochre
That would have been me, sorry. :oops:

User avatar
Indon
Posts: 4433
Joined: Thu Oct 18, 2007 5:21 pm UTC
Location: Alabama :(
Contact:

Re: Unknown Unknowns

Postby Indon » Tue Jun 22, 2010 2:30 pm UTC

"Unknown unknowns" are a fact of life in military situations, and huge amounts of military intelligence resources are dedicated to turning them into at least "known unknowns".

Rumsfeld was blowing smoke out his ass. The concept he describes is not new and frankly, he wasn't even using it right. Unknown unknowns are extremely bad in military planning. You don't just go, "Well, we can't know everything, time to go off half-cocked!", you have to actually work to become aware of the situation or the only thing you might as well know is that an unknown unknown has teeth and is going to bite you in the ass because you didn't pay attention to it (by achieving situational awareness).

Needless to say, more than a few did before things started resolving, and Rumsfeld is a fine example himself of the Dunning-Kruger effect the article discusses - that is to say, he didn't really know what he was talking about, and he was too dumb to know it.
So, I like talking. So if you want to talk about something with me, feel free to send me a PM.

My blog, now rarely updated.

Image

morriswalters
Posts: 7073
Joined: Thu Jun 03, 2010 12:21 am UTC

Re: Unknown Unknowns

Postby morriswalters » Tue Jun 22, 2010 2:51 pm UTC

Let's turn this into we all hate Rumsfeld thread, since it appears to be a common trait to this point. The point about the Dunning-Kruger effect is that it effects everyone. If it's true then you can't make a better decision than Rumsfeld given the assumption that your data is not is not as complete as his. In point of fact if it's true, than democracy is a miracle since in the Declaration of Independence Jefferson says "That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." Given that people seem to think the Dunning-Kruger effect is an obvious truth then how can we, as a society and individuals, make informed decisions and give our consent? Which comes to my question. How do we make good decisions or evaluate others decisions dispassionately?

User avatar
Indon
Posts: 4433
Joined: Thu Oct 18, 2007 5:21 pm UTC
Location: Alabama :(
Contact:

Re: Unknown Unknowns

Postby Indon » Tue Jun 22, 2010 3:10 pm UTC

morriswalters wrote:The point about the Dunning-Kruger effect is that it effects everyone.

This is self evident. If people who were wrong were reliably able to realize they were wrong, then people would be wrong way less than they are at present.
So, I like talking. So if you want to talk about something with me, feel free to send me a PM.

My blog, now rarely updated.

Image

User avatar
BlackSails
Posts: 5315
Joined: Thu Dec 20, 2007 5:48 am UTC

Re: Unknown Unknowns

Postby BlackSails » Tue Jun 22, 2010 6:27 pm UTC

I thought that the unknown unknowns quote was actually quite intelligent. Most people just never think of the fact that there are things we dont know we dont know. No amount of preparation will remove that, and you hope that the things you dont know you dont know either arent important or just dont happen.

User avatar
Zamfir
I built a novelty castle, the irony was lost on some.
Posts: 7588
Joined: Wed Aug 27, 2008 2:43 pm UTC
Location: Nederland

Re: Unknown Unknowns

Postby Zamfir » Tue Jun 22, 2010 6:31 pm UTC

morriswalters wrote: Which comes to my question. How do we make good decisions or evaluate others decisions dispassionately?


The same way we have always done. By being careful, and sometimes failing anyway. Unknowns have always been the hard part of decisions, an we seem to have managed anyway, and sometimes we didn't manage and screwed up.
I thought that the unknown unknowns quote was actually quite intelligent. Most people just never think of the fact that there are things we dont know we dont know. No amount of preparation will remove that, and you hope that the things you dont know you dont know either arent important or just dont happen.


Perhaps people never think of it as an abstract principle, but when making actual decisions on specific issues, people are very aware of unknown unknowns.

User avatar
Oregonaut
Posts: 6511
Joined: Wed Jun 02, 2010 9:58 pm UTC
Location: Oregon

Re: Unknown Unknowns

Postby Oregonaut » Tue Jun 22, 2010 6:55 pm UTC

Indon wrote:"Unknown unknowns" are a fact of life in military situations, and huge amounts of military intelligence resources are dedicated to turning them into at least "known unknowns".

Rumsfeld was blowing smoke out his ass. The concept he describes is not new and frankly, he wasn't even using it right. Unknown unknowns are extremely bad in military planning. You don't just go, "Well, we can't know everything, time to go off half-cocked!", you have to actually work to become aware of the situation or the only thing you might as well know is that an unknown unknown has teeth and is going to bite you in the ass because you didn't pay attention to it (by achieving situational awareness).
Needless to say, more than a few did before things started resolving, and Rumsfeld is a fine example himself of the Dunning-Kruger effect the article discusses - that is to say, he didn't really know what he was talking about, and he was too dumb to know it.


Bolded portion for emphasis.

Seriously, this is the truth.

This isn't just true for the military though. Imagine if NASA wanted to send people to Mars, but they decided, eh, we don't know what we don't know. They couldn't hope to succeed. A business launches a food product without due dilligence on their part to make sure it is fit for consumption. A baseball team hires a manager without checking his credentials. The list continues... The unknown unknown should only be used as an explanation for failure in cases where things happen that are beyond far fetched. Otherwise it rings more of "we can't know what we don't know" instead of "we don't know what we don't know".
- Ochigo the Earth-Stomper

The EGE wrote:
Mumpy wrote:And to this day, librarians revile Oregonaut as the Antichrist.

False! We sacrifice our card catalogues to him in the name of Job Security!

morriswalters
Posts: 7073
Joined: Thu Jun 03, 2010 12:21 am UTC

Re: Unknown Unknowns

Postby morriswalters » Tue Jun 22, 2010 6:58 pm UTC

Indon wrote:
morriswalters wrote:The point about the Dunning-Kruger effect is that it effects everyone.

This is self evident. If people who were wrong were reliably able to realize they were wrong, then people would be wrong way less than they are at present.

The problem I have with the obvious is what the obvious implies. Taken literally it means that you can't make an intelligent critique of Rumsfeld unless you have a knowledge of a situation superior to his. I'm interested in strategies to hedge this effect if it exists.


Return to “Serious Business”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: Scalteheaph and 6 guests