Errol Morris on the unknown unknowns

Documentary filmmaker and all-around dope human being Errol Morris has a semi-regular column for the New York Times, in which he discusses “the influences and use of photography.” One of the uses of photography is to provide subject matter for essays I don’t read, for possibly the same reason that I am not interested in sculptures about songs. Yesterday, though, he got me. Morris describes a man who came under the impression that rubbing lemon juice on your face makes it invisible to cameras. Armed with this knowledge, he robbed two banks in Pittsburgh, his eyes and skin burning, only to be identified from security footage and apprehended. The man, Morris opines, was the victim of a kind of anosognosia—in this case the failure, caused by stupidity, to recognize one’s own stupidity.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that “the problem with stupid assholes is that they’re so stupid they don’t believe there’s such a thing as smart.”* It turns out Vonnegut’s assessment has been experimentally verified. Researches at Cornell University have identified the Dunning-Kruger Effect, by which our incompetence at certain tasks weakens not only our ability to perform those tasks, but also our ability to realize we’re making mistakes at all. Like all the best neurological studies, the Dunning-Kruger Effect doesn’t necessarily tell us something we didn’t know—it doesn’t address a known unknown, as Morris would have it—but it does capture something fundamental about the nature of knowledge.

Morris is fascinated with the “unknown unknowns”of Rumsfeld’s infamous coinage—the ignorances of whose very existence we remain ignorant. The expiration date on the milk in my refrigerator is a known unknown; the man crouching in the closet next to my refrigerator is an unknown unknown. As Morris observes, it’s those second ones that kill us. The known unknown/unknown unknown dichotomy is a useful way of thinking, but what does it really describe?

Consider the milk/prowler distinction in the previous paragraph. What we’re really talking about here is the difference between knowledge and information. Morris cites as an example of a known unknown the melting point of beryllium; he does not know what it is, but he’s aware that it exists and he can probably find it out. The day my milk expires is a similar piece of information. The knowledge components of these entities are really “beryllium melts at a specific temperature” and “the milk goes bad on a certain day.” The information is adjectival, if you will, and has no meaning as the disembodied factoids “June 10” and “1551 Kelvin.”

The man in my closet is a different animal. Where I know the basics of the Milk Cycle even if I don’t know the particular schedule on which it will play itself out, the man in the closet surprises me not with the features of his face but with his very existence. He is in this sense an unknown unknown, but he is also a somewhat misleading example. The man in my closet is conscious, and therefore conscious of his own existence even when I am not. In what sense he “exists” is not in question; he is that consciousness that is consciousness of itself, objectively existing in my closet and thinking about knives and thousands of hours of Miley Cyrus videos or whatever.

Not so with all unknown unknowns. Morris draws attention to this problem late in his column, when he considers examples of mediocrity. “The run-of-the-mill lawyer fails to recognize the winning legal argument that is out there,” he writes. But in what sense is the winning argument “out there?” Where the melting point of an element seems like a real and independent unit of fact, the legal argument does not exist until someone articulates it. While it’s tempting to think that every case has a best argument—and every group of characters has a best play, and every tree has a best poem—the manner in which such things and even the notion of “best” can exist without people to construct and witness them is highly questionable. Is the socialist-realist mural Ke$ha would paint if only she were much, much better at painting an unknown unknown, or is it not out there at all?

The contradiction implicit in Morris’s pleasing theory of unknown unknowns is that they only take existence when someone knows them. In the same way that my urinating standing up does not violate the rules of space hockey, units of knowledge that are unknown by definition do not exist. The problem, of course, comes when well-defined, existing knowledge becomes an unknown unknown to some people, as in the case of the Lemon Juice Bandit. The distance between the known unknowns and what should be known—whether fact or limitation—remains staggering. As Morris demonstrates, it’s also perversely fun to think about.

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  1. What I have to say is only tangentially related, but seeing as Combat! appears to be a blog in which the author writes about things other articles make him think about, it seems only appropriate that the commenters write about things the post makes them think about. A few years ago, Chuck Klosterman (whom I reference often enough to make one realize that I must be shallow) wrote this article ( in which he discusses how inventions are no longer curing necessities or even things we want. No-one needed a VCR in the 70s but everyone at least wanted to watch movies at home. No-one had even thought about text messaging until it existed on their phones. People weren’t clamoring for it, but once cellular technology worked, it was really really easy to through texting on there so why not? And now we all rely on it to a shameful degree. This feels like an engineering application of the known unknown and unknown unknown dichotomy. In the past, technology was always a known unknown- “flying would be fast”,” getting to the moon would be cool”,” preserving meat would be convenient” were all old ideas someone figured out; now technology is applying more to unknown unknowns- “let’s tell everyone what is on our mind in 140 characters”,” let’s make it easier to take a book on the train”, “let’s make sure no-one ever has to turn his head when parallel parking” were not thoughts people really had until someone did. unknown unknowns are more prevalent now than ever before.

    Also, oddly enough, the snippet at the bottom which would have been featured as a side bar in the original publication of this article, is also tangentially similar to another Combat! post (

  2. Slavoj Zizek pointed out that there’s a fourth category of knowledge missing in Rumsfeld’s little ontological rubric … and it’s kind of appropriate that the High Priest of the War on Terror doesn’t think to mention it. Quick: can you name it? It’s more horrifying and dangerous than any unknown unknown, which, let’s face it, is just a brilliant way to keep people scared shitless (particularly useful if, like Rumsfeld, you’re managing a war against an emotion like terror).

    Any takers?


    Psychologists call it … you know … the subconscious mind. I would think artists like Morris would be more interested in the things we don’t know we know … as when, for example, a cocky young man believes he can defy the oracle and not fuck his mom or kill his dad only to realize that his efforts to evade these actions hurled him directly toward their fulfillment. Or when a photograph haunts us long after the retina burn has faded and then snaps back into focus as we watch our father die in a hospital.

    Or when snotty liberals like myself mock Rumsfeld et al for being two different shades of stupid without considering that there’s another, more exacting labor we must engage to be better citizens (and artists, for that matter). What don’t we yet know that we know? What simmers beneath all our well-charted projects and conscious intentions? (and beneath fun, brain-silencing koans about trees falling in forests or men hiding in closets?)

    Most great art hinges on reveals and reversals of this nature. And most great fascists like Rumsfeld accumulate power precisely by shutting off this fourth category of knowledge — a terrified public wants to be delivered from the darkness within and to wage war on feeling itself. Terror is a feeling before it is a tactic, after all. That we have weaponized feeling without realizing it … still horrifies me more than any unknown unknown I can dream up.

    Hypochondriacs feel their pain, but do not suffer it. Similarly, worrying about unknown unknowns is a great way to busy the brain and discharge a deeper fear.

  3. This is the only thing you need to know you didn’t know: Right now–almost midnight–in Iowa City, I could have a 60-year-old white guy with a tidy haircut bring me tacos. This place where Paul Revere’s used to be makes them: tacos like at Tasty Tacos, lamb tacos, red snapper tacos, portobello & egg tacos–Egg tacos! which haven’t been so there and so mine since before that whore Angelina Jolie shut down the Twisted Spoke (no, not that one: the one that had egg tacos)–and then they BRING THEM TO ME. How many kinds of tacos are delivered to wherever the fuck you are these days, Dan?

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