UFOs Rumsfeldian Style!

Greetings, everyone.

Among a certain class of people, the term “Rumsfeldian” is used to describe a style of leadership that prizes bureaucratic turf-protecting, dissent-quashing through barely concealed intimidation, an inflated sense of self-importance, and the inability to incorporate possible long-term consequences into the decision making process.  This class consists primarily of policy wonks, especially the left-leaning ones I interact with daily at the Humphrey Institute, and we are referring to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.  There is, however, another context where you will hear “Rumsfeldian” being bandied about, and that is in conjunction with his famous quote during a press conference on Feb. 12th, 2002:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.

Justly ridiculed at the time as masking ignorance in seeming profundity, the quote has since entered popular culture, in particular the part about “unknown unknowns,” as a way of acknowledging uncertainty and the limits of human understanding.  This perspective can be very useful when thinking about the topic for today: Unidentified Flying Objects, more commonly referred to as UFOs.

In the Rumsfeldian system of classification, UFOs fall pretty squarely into the category of the “known unknowns,” but despite the admission that we don’t know what a UFO is (if we did, then by definition it would no longer be a UFO) it is often the case that whenever that acronym enters the conversation the subject almost inevitably turns to the subject of alien spacecraft and the question of whether or not the Earth has ever been visited by beings from another world.  By a curious bit of serendipity, right before I sat down to write this, I was checking Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog, and he had recently put up a link to a YouTube video of Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson answering a question about UFOs from an audience member at a panel discussion he was a part of.  In my book, Dr. Tyson occupies a position similar to the late, great Carl Sagan as the foremost public intellectual in the fields of astronomy and planetary science, and his answer to the question is both witty and insightful.

As human beings, we are usually very uncomfortable with uncertainty, and the case of UFOs puts this on display like few other subjects.  The leap from “we don’t know what this is” to “this must be an alien spacecraft” is pretty darn huge, and is a textbook example of what logicians call the argument from ignorance: If I don’t know what something is and you can’t explain it, then I am free to put it in any category I want, even though the available evidence is nowhere near the point where we can even make educated guesses.

Furthermore, most UFO reports are based on what Dr. Tyson rightly says is the least credible form of evidence we know of: eyewitness testimony.  Our senses are notoriously unreliable, and extremely easy to fool (think about optical illusions).  When we add that to the general ignorance in our culture about astronomical phenomena, along with countless TV shows, movies, conspiracy theories and the like that address the subject of alien visitation, often in the context of a vast government cover-up, it is not hard to see why the UFO=alien spacecraft is a leap that is so often made.  However, the fact that, conspiracy theorists notwithstanding, we have almost nothing other than eyewitness testimony to go on (photos, which can be easily doctored, no longer count) means that scientists really have nothing tangible to work with in order to determine what any particular UFO report might actually be.

Of course many things that were once thought to be UFOs actually do end up being explained in some fashion.  Many turn out to be meteorites, weather balloons, top secret aircraft, the planet Venus seen under a myriad of odd atmospheric conditions, or hoaxes of varying complexity and ingenuity.  For those that are still UFOs, the honest thing to do is to simply admit that we really just don’t know.  This does not close the book on UFOs by any means, but it also means not jumping to unwarranted conclusions on the basis of very flimsy evidence.

I will, however, grant that some UFO claims do have a little more to them than most and come from somewhat more credible sources than your average person on the street.  A few years ago, a good friend of mine loaned me a book called Disclosure : Military and Government Witnesses Reveal the Greatest Secrets in Modern History.  Many of the accounts contained in this book come from military pilots, who from their training are a lot more familiar with the many kinds of aircraft they might encounter in flight and can make more informed judgments about the size and speed of things in the air.  It is true that most of the accounts are primarily eyewitness testimony, but in quite a few of the cases there is evidence from radar readings that can confirm that they at least saw something.  While there was not enough in the book to turn me into a real-life version of Fox Mulder, it makes a good case as to why some of the claims presented deserve more thorough investigation.

So when you contemplate those things that still remain in the “known unknown” category, please remember that just because you don’t know and I don’t know, your imagination running wild does not then automatically become the truth.  A few years before Rumsfeld uttered his infamous quote, I came up with a saying that sort of gets at the same idea, but with a little less arrogance: “The more that I know, the more I realize how much more there is that I don’t know.”  Maybe it is not all that eloquent, but the message that true knowledge inspires humility is one that needs to be heard in an age where claims of absolute certainty are routinely made without any evidence to stand on, and where ignorance is too often celebrated and encouraged.

Donald Rumsfeld
Neil de Grasse Tyson on UFOs
Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog
The Disclosure project and book

Question: Where else in our culture do you see the argument from ignorance being frequently used?

Norman Barrett Wiik as a current graduate student in public policy, a board member for Camp Quest of Minnesota and Camp Quest Inc., and a lifelong enthusiast of space exploration.

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5 Responses to “UFOs Rumsfeldian Style!”

  1. October 24th, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Joshua Zelinsky says:

    Arguments from ignorance are very popular among creationists (no surprise there). Literally last night I had to explain to a friend that just because we don’t have a fossil record of every single living thing from the first humans down to 1 celled creatures it doesn’t mean that the earth is 6000 years old.

  2. October 25th, 2009 at 1:21 am

    Alex says:

    Why do you say that the quote was “justly ridiculed”? I thought that the only decent thing Rumsfeld did while working for the US government was say that.

  3. October 25th, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    llewelly says:

    I’m with Alex. The Rumsfeld quote actually describes a very good way to think about what is known and unknown (though it is by no means original to Rumsfeld, except perhaps in that specific wording).
    It’s too bad that quote gets black-balled because of all the awful, greedy, and stupid things Rumsfeld did.

  4. October 26th, 2009 at 11:12 pm

    Norm says:

    While in a general context, Rumsfeld’s quote is a good way of expressing how our knowledge is limited, the press conference where he said it focused mostly on the situation in Afghanistan at the time. In that context, it sounded like he had absolutely no idea what was really going on there, so I found the derision heaped on him then and since to be justified. The idea behind the quote is certainly not original to Rumsfeld; I found earlier formulations being attributed to Henry David Thoreau and to Socrates.

  5. October 27th, 2009 at 2:54 am

    Nathan Myers says:

    He should have been ridiculed for leaving out the fourth, and most damaging kind of ignorance: things you think you know that are not, in fact, so. Many of the worst debacles of that administration arose from their unwillingness even to consider that they might suffer from this oh-so-prevalent affliction.

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